Leading By Example & Mistaken Beliefs

According to Albert Schweitzer, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing”.

If Albert is right about that, then leading by example, although a simple enough concept carries with it a pretty big impact.

On the face of it, to get it right, leaders must exhibit the behaviour they would like to see in others.  To use a well worn expression (that frankly, really belongs in the cliché bin), it’s about “walking the walk and talking the talk”.   What could possibly be complicated about that? Yet, some of us still manage to muck it up.

Perhaps  it is so simple that we often fail to consider it at all.  Or, perhaps it is that some people have mistaken beliefs about what leading by example is really about. Here are a few possibilities that come to mind for me:

  • · Mistaken Belief #1 – Leading by Example is a 9-5 pursuit

I suspect that some leaders make leading by example a project rather than a way of being. In other words, they appreciate that in order to engage people at the office they have to serve as a role model and so they create a model of personal behaviour that may have little or no bearing on who they really are. In effect they put on their office persona in the morning along with their business clothes and take it off again when they get home and change into something more comfortable. While this practice may show some positive results in the short term, it is not easily sustainable.  And, I can only imagine how exhausting it must be.

The bottom line: If you don’t represent yourself honestly where ever you are, the example you set will not ring true for those you want to influence the most.

  • · Mistaken Belief #2 – You can get people to do as you say, and not as you do, as long as you don’t get caught

In our condominium complex, there is a man on the board who is President of his own company. He serves on our Strata as Chair of the Building Committee, a pretty important role.  This past week he sent out a communication to all owners to advise us that putting weather stripping across our front doors is strongly discouraged because doing so interferes with the flow of air to the suites.  He advised those among us who had installed weather stripping to remove it immediately.

Days later, after receiving this rather forceful message, my husband had cause to place a note concerning condo board business under this man’s door.  He was unsuccessful in doing so because apparently, our Building Chair has installed weather stripping.

The Bottom Line: If you have ever had the idea that you can say one thing and do another and not be found out, think again.   Believe me, you will be busted. And, when you are, the trust and respect that others have for you will be compromised.

  • · Mistaken Belief #3 – People will only pick up and emulate the behaviours you want them to adopt

No matter who we are, as long as we are alive, someone is looking to us for an example of how to behave. Even if we have never been placed in a formal leadership position, we influence those around us simply by being there. And, being human, we are not always going to act in exemplary fashion. We can only hope to align our behaviour in accordance with what we value most and accept that sometimes others will pick up something from us that we would rather they hadn’t.  It happens.

For example, a long time ago, I was invited to attend a lunch in the Head office executive dining room.  I was very surprised to receive the invitation because as a fairly junior personnel assistant, it was a bit of a lofty thing to happen for me.

The purpose of the lunch was to entertain a party of Chinese students. On meeting them I began to realize why I might have been chosen to participate.  They were all rather small and I, also being rather small, seemed to be the only bank representative who could look them straight in the eye without having to sit down.

The table was beautifully set. However, the only challenge for me and my lunch companions was that it was rather high, and the dining chairs, in contrast, rather low.

In spite of this, the lunch unfolded quite well…until the waiters delivered dessert, strawberries served in a tall stemmed glass, rimmed with sugar. It didn’t take long for me to discover that if I actually wanted to eat these delicious strawberries, I would have to stand up.  The other diminutives around the table seemed to be in the same predicament.  I noticed them looking at each other but none was so brave as to take a chance and grab a strawberry quickly while no one was looking.  And so, at what I considered to be a strategic moment, I took up my spoon, stood up very quickly, popped a strawberry into my mouth and sat down, just as quickly, to chew it.  My new, and equally undersized companions followed my lead until soon, we were all popping up and down until we bore a striking resemblance to an um-pa-pa band.  Needless to say, I was never invited back to the executive dining room.

Bottom line: It is a mistake to expect that people will not, at times, follow an unintended lead. It happens.  Forgive yourself and move on.

For more information about Leading by Example, here is a link to an article written by A.J. Schuler.


Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring, Self Knowledge, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Leading By Example & Mistaken Beliefs

  1. Hi Gwyn
    What superb post – both entertaining and enlightening! I agree it is all about authenticity and coming to terms with being a role model for your staff whether you like it or not!
    My first experience was when I was a very young manager working in a finance department and the middle aged guy working for me told me he was using me as a role model. At the time it was a shock. But as I got older I realized what he meant. It isn’t age that sets the criteria but status – if the organization put you in a leading position then how you behave is taken as the marker. But if you cheat it makes people cynical not just about you but the organization as a whole.
    Overall it’s quite a responsibility but one you have to come to terms with!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Yes, it’s something of an unspoken thing isn’t it? When you first find yourself in a leadership role, no one actually tells you that people will be watching you for clues as to how to behave themselves.

      Thanks very much for coming by Wendy and for your comments.

  2. The best Marine CO I ever had, James Ayers used to say that “There is no leadership without leadership by example.” That’s been one bit of wisdom I’ve treasured for over forty years now.

    They say that what gets measured gets managed and that’s true. But it’s also true that how it’s modeled is how it gets done.

    Thanks for an incredible post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      That’s really another thing about leading by example. We may never know who looks to us for role modeling but we always remember the people in our lives who have set examples for us…even forty years after.

      Thanks so much for your comments, Wally

  3. This is really great, especially your examples. It is also great wisdom for parents – if we really want to know how well we are walking our talk at all hours we can watch our children.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      That is absolutely true! Parents are the ultimate role models. Children generally want to be just like them, that is until they become teenagers 🙂

      Thanks for coming by Susan. It’s always nice to have your perspective on things.

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