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).