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).

If in leading by example you’re finding yourself dipping down and doing the technical work that belongs to staff, that should be a warning to re-examine your leadership style and the development of your staff. People who tell me they’re hands on in leading by example also tend to be the ones who tell me they work excessively long hours and have trouble delegating.

If you’re behaving in a certain way or setting out symbols for staff without explicitly and repeatedly drawing lines from this back to your goals, values, and activities, you run the significant risk that the message you’ve intended is not coming across. Seeking to be a role model is not much use if you’re not properly communicating what you’re trying to do and why plus, most importantly, communicating your expectations of your staff.

There’s a central tension in leading by example, because as a leader the work you do is different to the work done by your staff. Being a good leader is in part about leveraging that tension effectively. Behaving a certain way or being good at a technical discipline is fundamentally insufficient. You need to be able to exemplify how to behave as a part of the team and provide your expectations for the team. Much of the time, what you’re asking them to do won’t map directly to what you do on a day to day basis. What a good leader needs to do is set and explain the organisational values, principles, and ways of working and tie them to the actual work that is done.

A few weeks ago, I heard Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh speak about stepping into her role as head of the Victoria Police’s Crime Command. As the first woman in that role, she was keenly aware that she was stepping into what she termed a macho environment that was dominated by male detectives, not to mention the perception that tackling serious crime is a male domain. One Monday, she brought in fluffy pink cupcakes that she’d made with her niece over the weekend. It was a symbol that she was up for playfully skewering perceptions of what kind of a leader she could be and the kind of place women could have in their command. At the same time, it was an invitation to those around her to contend with the kind of environment they’d built and how it could be changed.

Most importantly, Assistant Commissioner Walsh was able to articulate what she was doing and why, building relationships and expectations rather than question marks. It’s not an example anyone else was in a position to lead with and it was far more effective than leaving a leadership vacuum by dipping down or not communicating, both of which would have undermined her as a leader at a crucial time. As a leader, you have to recognise that you’re different, too: you have something unique to bring to the table and the work of your role can’t directly correlate to that of others. You need to leverage that tension.

Next time you talk about leading about example, think about what meaning is sitting behind that phrase for you and how it’s translating for others. Talking the talk is as important as walking it.

At LKS Quaero, we help leaders to create the right culture through systemic change and leadership development. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.