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lead by example

Be What You Want to See: Leading by Example

Your actions speak louder than words. Do as I say, not as I do. Honesty is the best policy. Be the change you want to see.

You may look upon these maxims as trite things your mother always said. But Mom was a leadership wizard. Just as you absorbed your parents’ words and actions as a child, your staff is watching you. What you say and do sets the standard of behavior for your organization. The values posted on the wall or the espoused behaviors mean nothing if you don’t demonstrate them yourself.

Command the Stage

People learn in a variety of ways. Which is more impactful – handing someone an employee manual or demonstrating the required steps? While both work, most people learn best through watching and then doing.

Social learning theory, as defined by psychologist Albert Bandura, emphasizes the importance of watching, modeling, and imitating the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Children learn in this manner. Observational learning involves modeling after:

  • Those who are similar to you in age, appearance, etc.
  • Someone you aspire to be like
  • Knowledgeable people
  • People who are rewarded in a manner you appreciate
  • Nurturing figures in your life

Children will copy behavior if they see peers or authority figures reward it.

Observational learning continues long after childhood. We continue to learn new skills by being shown how to do something and then doing it ourselves. Today, this can include watching instructional videos on YouTube on anything from plumbing to the latest iPhone features. We “read the room” in new situations to determine appropriate behavior and to see who wields the power. We listen to how others speak and what they say and emulate it.

David Friedman, author of Fundamentally Different, wrote,

“Both consciously and unconsciously, people look to their leaders for guidance about acceptable behavior. If you’re a leader, you’re on stage at every moment, so it’s critical that you make the most of that opportunity.”

Team members also watch what their leaders don’t do – and follow suit.

Be What You Want to See

Most organizations have a series of values or behaviors that they want their employees to emulate. There might be a list of statements such as “develop trust” or “be a fanatic about response time.” These values describe the company culture. The best way to convey these behaviors and encourage others to follow them is to demonstrate your expectations.

The expression “tone at the top” describes a company’s ethical environment as lived out by its leadership. Management needs to convey integrity more than any other value. As author Robert Chestnut wrote in the Harvard Business Review,

“If [leaders] cut corners, don’t follow the rules, or ignore bad behavior by top performers, it gives everyone implicit permission to act the same way.”


Leaders must set the ethical tone of the company and “do the right thing” in all circumstances, even if it negatively affects short-term business results.

Another foundational value or behavior is attitude. We all have days when we are distracted, tired, and frustrated. Our team picks up on that. You may not think it, but your poor attitude dictates whether your staff will have a good day. By intentionally acting positively, you encourage others to behave the same way. Your enthusiasm and upbeat character will be contagious. The team’s productivity and engagement will soar.

Your team is also watching how you handle bad news and crises. Show them the benefits of taking a deep breath, getting the facts, and thoughtfully crafting a plan of action. If you rush to judgment, fly off the handle, and blame the messenger, you can expect your staff to respond likewise.

Do As I Say….

Writing in Entrepreneur, Murray Newlands offers several ways to lead by example and be a stronger leader. His suggestions include:

1. Be willing to get your hands dirty. Don’t ask others to do what you are unwilling to do yourself. This can be as simple as changing the copier paper and wiping up spills at the coffee station. 

2. Take responsibility for failure and give credit to others. Whether you messed up or someone on your team did, you must take responsibility as the leader. When your team witnesses your humility, they will likewise not look to affix blame when things go wrong.

3. Have an open-door policy. Don’t just invite people to stop in – truly listen to what they say. Ask questions and listen carefully to their concerns.

4. Acknowledge and celebrate failure. Newlands notes that if you proclaim, “failure is not an option,” you create a culture of fear and disappointment. Risk-taking and innovation will shut down. Maintain accountability but encourage people to experiment.

5. Create solutions without dwelling on what went wrong. Focus on what you can learn from the error – don’t seek to identify who messed up.

6. Model taking time off, exercising, and taking care of yourself. You’ll signal that these things are important and your staff should follow suit.

7. Be truthful, and don’t withhold information from your team. Newlands says, “Though honesty is difficult at times, your honesty as a leader is vital to maintaining organizational health.” Keep communication open. Honesty will help build trust among your employees.

8. Don’t bend the rules because you’re the leader. If you don’t follow them, who will?

9. Demand excellence from yourself, and you’ll get it from your team. When you hold yourself to high standards, your team will seek your favor and try to do likewise. If you don’t set the bar high for yourself, you won’t realize your potential, and the team won’t achieve theirs either.


…Not As I Do

Perhaps the worst thing a leader can do is to pay lip service to company values or rules and act contrary to them. Your team is watching whether your actions match your words. They’ll pick up on the slightest hint of hypocrisy. This leads to resentment, doubt, and lack of trust. Be mindful of what you say and to whom – people are listening.

Of course, we all have moments when we slip up. We might overreact or say something in the heat of the moment. Your staff is watching what you do next and how you make it right. If you apologize and ask for the other party’s support as you work to improve your behavior, the team will see your sincerity and humility.

However, if you continue to miss the mark repeatedly, you will lose credibility. Your team will assume that the company's supposed values and behaviors apply to everyone else but not you.

Your team also watches what you don’t say or do. Do you insist you honor commitments, yet you’re late for every meeting? Do you say “the customer is always right” yet complain about how unreasonable your customer is? Your team is reading through this and forming opinions on what is truly valued in the organization.

Do a Self-Assessment

Are you leading by example? The answer provides more value than, “Am I a good leader?” Author Michael Schrage writes in The Harvard Business Review,

“A simple question evokes greater self-awareness and actionable insights than the typical 360-degree review: How do you lead by example? That means asking leaders to detail instances and anecdotes where their actions set standards for others. What do they actually do that influences and inspires?

I’ve found no better diagnostic for promoting authentic revelations around personal leadership style and substance. For one, it non-judgmentally presumes people already lead by — and thus set — good examples; for another, it pushes leaders to think harder about how others interpret their behavior. Truly credible answers require both empathy and introspection.”


Recalling specific situations where you led by example provides insight into what is most meaningful to you. Do your anecdotes center on how you dealt with customers? Or HR issues? You may find that your examples are overweighted towards one area more than others.

In Culture by DesignDavid Friedman’s second book, the author provides two implications of paying attention to your behavior as well as your words.

First, you become more aware of your actions, recognizing the need to set a good example. You become much more intentional when you think before you speak or act.

Second, you take a much more critical look at your behavior. We all have areas in which we need to improve. Great leaders intentionally identify areas for improvement and then take steps to remedy them. Demonstrating a willingness to change and work on yourself is a powerful model for others.

By critically examining your behavior and words, you have a window into the company culture you have created. If you don’t like what you see, you’re the one who needs to change – not your team.