May 11

Lead By Example: More Than A Cliché

By John M. Vetere, President, John M. Vetere & Associates

Lead by example. As you read those words what ran through your mind? Maybe you immediately thought of the leaders around you, your supervisor, a company owner, some who lead by example and some who do not. Perhaps you are a business owner and your immediate thought was that you try your best but you barely have time to complete your own work, never mind think deeply about what it means to lead by example.

I think we all understand that, in general, leading by example is a good thing. Scattered all over the web, you will find quotes, graphics and more philosophical exposés on the topic than there are companies in the world. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. It is important for us to come out of the clouds and look at both the simplicity and complexity that embody these three words, and deliver some practical advice that you can immediately implement.

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” – Albert Einstein

Einstein’s quote is dead-on (no surprise there). Influencing others by creating an environment in which people become motivated to excel and achieve at the highest level is the basis of great leadership. Therefore, leading by example must be an intentional and integral part of creating that environment.

Here are four specific ways you can lead by example. By the way, you don’t need a positional title nor do you need a staff that you formally lead to do any of these.

1. Expect the Best

If you want your team performing to the highest standards, then you must set the desired tone. How did you perform as a leader today? How did you perform in your job today? How did you communicate today? I have had executive coaching clients tell me that they lowered, some use the word compromised, their internal standards because the previous, higher standards upset their employees. If you find yourself lowering your standards for the same reasons then you need to ask yourself three questions, 1) am I effectively communicating the standard, 2) am I personally leading the way with a high standard of excellence, and 3) what do I need to do to raise the level of the team?

Everyone around you may not have the skill sets or experience to meet your standards. Make sure you provide the tools, experiences and professional development needed to hit that higher standard of excellence. Most importantly, provide a consistent example of continuous learning and personal excellence.

2. Raise Leaders

Certainly, there is no substitute for hiring someone who is a fit for a particular job within your organization, but even a person who is a perfect fit needs to be developed and supported. Here is an example that I saw recently:

A young professional, let’s call her Carly, recently graduated from college with a business degree. She then went to work for a fairly new distributor of lab products, and began learning the operations of the company on the shipping and receiving docks. Eventually she secured a management role in the shipping department.

When Carly joined the company, the management team could have written her off, believing the urban legend that young workers today do not have loyalty to their employers. Four years later they would have had a disgruntled employee that hadn’t fully developed her potential and wasn’t prepared for leadership.

Instead, the company recognized that Carly wanted to learn and grow, and her leaders provided the nurturing and support she needed. Now, four years later, Carly is still at the company, has become a standout leader, and cares deeply about the services provided and the customers she serves. Will Carly stay there forever? I don’t know, but I do know that while she is with the company she is contributing to the growth and success of the organization.

3. Make Alexander the Great Proud

No, I am not suggesting you go out and build an empire or eliminate relatives to secure your place on a throne. What I do suggest is that, like Alexander, you roll up your sleeves and lead your team into the battle of business. Alexander was not an armchair general sitting in a safe place issuing orders while others did the dirty work. Instead, he was on the frontlines – he did not simply talk about the upcoming battles, he fought in the battles, resulting in tremendous loyalty and trust. However, Alexander didn’t try to do everything. He knew how to delegate and build a solid leadership team around him.

4. Develop Trust

Trust is the essential ingredient in effective communication. If you are trusted, your words will be heard with a completely different mindset than if you are not. Leading by example only works if your example is trusted; if your words are trusted; if your actions are trusted; if your behaviors are trusted. If these elements are not trusted you will receive suspicion from your employees and coworkers. The opposite of trust is not distrust or mistrust, the real opposite of trust is suspicion.

As simple as it sounds, the best way to develop trust is to be truthful – in everything you do. To draw back to Einstein again, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Inaccurate representation of your words, actions or behaviors leads to suspicion about your motives and authenticity. Let’s face it, you want to be able to trust the people around you, and they want to be able to trust you. Lead by being truthful and you will be on your way to creating a culture without suspicion, where your employees can really thrive.

How do you lead by example? Which of these tips are you going to implement right now? Let us know in the comments below.

For additional information, watch:

If Leading By Example is such a good thing, why doesn’t everyone do it? This video provides insight on how to be cognizant of our own blindspots when coaching and mentoring.

To learn more about leadership and related topics, visit John’s website at

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