A frosted cupcake topped by a lit sparkler against a blue background

What Does Leading by Example Actually Mean?

By Chally Kacelnik

I meet a lot of leaders who talk about their capacity to lead their teams by example. It’s one of those phrases that just sounds right. “Leading by example” connotes getting amongst it and relating to people in a simple, accountable, down to earth way. However, it can have quite disparate meanings depending on who you ask. Most recently, the answers I’ve heard are that leading by example is about:

  • Being able to build trust and influence with staff as you go about your work
  • Being hands on and helping staff with practical issues
  • Demonstrating respect and otherwise working positively with others
  • Being consistent in what you expect from staff

Trust, practicality, respect, and consistency are all worthy goals for leaders to pursue in their relationships with their staff, their peers, and with everyone they encounter in the workplace (not to mention their broader lives). However, it’s telling that there’s not often a common thread in what leading by example means to people. People tend to be quite confident that leading by example is a thing that they do, and my experience is that there isn’t much of an awareness of different interpretations. The main commonality is that everyone’s quite sure that everyone else understands what they mean by it.

That’s pretty worrying. If we assume that others are not the same page about something as common as this, how can anyone be sure about what example they’re setting, let alone whether they’re leading and communicating with others effectively?

So what should we talking about when we talk about leading by example? Walking your talk sounds like bluster or fluff if you can’t pin down that talk. That’s where the problem lies. For some leaders, saying they lead by example inadvertently becomes a way of not communicating effectively and not operating at the right level of work (see our levels of work article for more information on this).

A shaky set of balloons, connected by lines, read: problem solving, engagement (mutual trust), behaviour (needs), learning (FIT & Memorable), and Planning (scheduling).

Case Study – The Impact of People on Performance

By Peter White

The case study was a key catalyst for the development of LKS Quaero’s leadership and culture programs. Be sure to read our new public program details. Here Peter highlights what happens if you implement a business transformation process (e.g. LEAN) while making sure you have the right people in the right roles doing the right work – and what happens when you don’t…

Business Background

It was a large scale, heavy industry manufacturing plant, one of five similar manufacturing plants globally in the fleet owned by the same company. It was old, hot, dirty, and loud.

The plant had the highest operating cost in the fleet, it had very poor safety performance, and poor behaviour was tolerated. There was significant resistance to change, high absenteeism, and leaders promoted from shop floor because of their experience. Additionally, there was poor equipment reliability, little discretionary effort, low levels of engagement, and poor housekeeping with little pride in the workplace. The environment was rife with a them and us mentality.

On the plus side, the plant produced very good quality product!

Purpose

The task was to implement business improvement (based on LEAN transformation methodology) to deliver a step change improvement in safety, cost, and productivity.

Lightbulbs hanging from ceiling

I’ll level with you: “Levels of Work” tips and traps

By Sam Robinson

A useful model that supports people to work well together in an organisation is the concept of “Levels of Work”. Familiar to many, it’s also one of the toughest things to grasp for people new to organisational theory (for an explanation, see the Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations book).

Essentially, Levels of Work proposes that work differs in complexity in organisations and the predominance of a certain level of complexity determines the Level of Work. (When work tasks are grouped together, this is called a “role”.) By complexity, I’m talking about the range and degree of ambiguity in variables having an impact on decision-making.

If you’ve ever worked at different levels in a large organisation, there are plenty of examples you’ll be familiar with. The first entry-level job you had when you came into an organisation is likely to have had fewer variables and a shorter impact horizon for your decisions than your later, more senior roles. For example, someone working in a team on a construction site laying the foundations for a new building is performing different work to someone leading a construction crew and being concerned with things like materials being ordered on time, the well-being and productivity of individuals, and the whole project moving forward as it should.

Levels of Work, once understood for the first time, is a real light bulb moment. Helping to shine a light on the actual value that an individual role should add to an organisation often entails reflection that opens a whole new world of understanding about work. For me, it helped me to understand my frustration with managers I’ve had in the past who dipped down and tried to work at “my” level.

But be careful.

Peter White

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Peter White, leadership and culture specialist

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Peter White is an experienced organisational leader with demonstrated leadership ability and a proven track record in developing employees and creating a constructive culture where working productively and continuous improvement form a way of life. Peter has an electrical engineering background, specialising in large and medium heavy industry environments. He is an Associate for LKS Quaero specialising in training, leadership, and culture. Here is his advice for leaders of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

What are the key leadership and culture challenges in the amalgamations in NSW?

The culture itself will be a big challenge. Many Councils are likely to be experiencing a passive defensive culture, meaning many will be dependent on the leadership to tell them what to do or they will be keeping their heads down, not wanting to be noticed and hoping it will all go away so things can get back to how they used to be.

A silo mentality is also common, where people are only interested in their own “patch”. A common issue here is the belief that knowledge is power, leading people to think ‘I will keep the information to myself so I will be protected’. In order to implement sustainable change, these silos will need to be identified and broken down. This can be achieved through a positive experience, provided the team members have clarity around their futures and are kept well informed of what is happening around them.

New Councils will also have to assess the skill, will, and drill of leaders at all levels. If an organisation needs to transition from the current state to a new desired future state, then it is important to determine if the organisation has the right person in the right role doing the right work. Another way to look at this is to determine if the person has the skill to do the work – have they been adequately trained? Do they have the will – do they want to do the work of the role, are they engaged in the organisation, and are they prepared to deal with difficult issues, including performance management? And finally, do they have the drill (or discipline)? They might have the skill and the will, but do they actually do it religiously every time? Are they walking the walk and talking the talk? Do they clearly demonstrate their commitment through their actions and comments?

Beyond the capability of leaders to deliver change, a major challenge is the uncertainty of what the future holds for individuals throughout the organisation. A lack of role clarity will compound this. For those in temporary roles in particular, there will be some reluctance to make key decisions for the future.

A group of people stand on top of a rock formation against a blue sky with small white clouds.

(Un)surprising Findings from Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team

By Sam Robinson

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” breathlessly told us about ‘new research’ that revealed surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter… and then told us what we knew already about the most highly effective teams.

That’s not a bad thing at all – in fact, it was deeply satisfying to read about yet more evidence that the strength of shared beliefs within teams is the key to that team working well together. This has actually been known for many years and documented extensively in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, but perhaps not in the same terms.

The article refers to ‘psychological safety,’ a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

We tell our clients that culture isn’t simply “what we do around here,” nor is it a complicated abstracted academic concept encouraging analysis only and not action.

When I discuss culture with clients, it’s about “culture” as a group of people who share beliefs about behaviour that (members of the culture believe) demonstrate positive and negative values.