Leading By Example and Some Mistaken Beliefs

Someone once said, A good example has twice the value of good advice.”  With that in mind, I offer you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2009 in the hope its value to you also merits a repeat performance. 


Many people have written about the importance of leading by example. Yet in spite of its apparent simplicity, there are still many times when we manage to muck it up.  Perhaps it is so simple that we take it for granted.  Or, perhaps it is that some of us 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. This practice is not sustainable over time 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 was a man on the board who is President of his own company. He served on our Strata as Chair of the Building Committee, a pretty important role.  Some time ago, 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, the 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 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.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership

13 responses to “Leading By Example and Some Mistaken Beliefs

  1. I agree that you should follow your own advice. I tend to like to look at things a bit different than others. The advice you give is not uncommon – be honest, be consistent, don’t be a hypocrite. Good advice.

    One of the things I find funny is that everyone accepts that people are excused from following your advice if you don’t. I think that is stupid. If your parents tell you not to smoke but they smoke. There advice is equally good. They are less good than a person that is wise enough to follow that advice. But the advice itself isn’t any more or less good based on whether the person giving it follows it, or not. I find it much more sensible to evaluate advice based on whether it is wise than based on whether the person providing it is wise (or foolish) enough to follow the advice.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi John, You make a good point. Sometimes the quality of the advice far exceeds that of its source and those who choose to ignore it are all the poorer for it. Advice about not smoking, from a smoker, is a good example of this. In other words, it’s the “don’t go down this road. I did… and regret it” kind of advice. I think too, that in formal leader/follower relationships those who do not role model the behaviour they would like to see in others send an unspoken message that they really do not believe in what they are saying. And that begs the question, “If you don’t believe in it, why should I?
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for bringing more depth of thought to the topic.

  2. Great post…glad you shared again. I find that it’s when leaders are under stress where they tend to forget that folks are watching. That’s when leading by example can matter the most.

  3. Dear Gwyn,

    Good morning.
    Great post as usual.
    The information you share is not subject to a statute of limitations, and has no born again date. It is timeless.

    I think John makes a great point about do what I say, not what I do. I agree with it to a certain extent between parent and child. However, what if your immediate supervisor tells you smoking is not allowed in the building, and she smokes in the building?

    How about telling your children not to drink in excess, and you come home 3 nights a week visibly intoxicated. They may listen, but what are they learning?

    Be well!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry ~ I agree. We are each capable of evaluating advice we receive. Usually, (in my experience anyway),we are more likely to follow it if the people giving it show, through their actions, that they believe in it too.
      Thank you for coming by and for your very kind words. It’s always lovely to see you here 🙂

  4. Terry Thomas

    Hi Gwyn
    I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon working on my annual proficiency eval to tun in to my supervisor Monday AM. This year the form changed for us to rate ourselves on a numeric 1-5 scale and provide specific examples.
    After reading your post and readers’ thoughtful comments, I hope to keep an open-mind about this exercise. If they provide any advice or feedback, I’ll try to look at it as a growth process and keep the emotions in check. Now I realize that accepting advice from my bosses will probably be easy compared to going home and receiving advice from my close family! : )
    I better get busy on another self-evaluation for school and vacation to avoid any surprises! Hopefully, rain clears the air and the sun will shine!

    • Hey Terry,

      I agree. I often find that those closest to me deliver the advice that is the hardest to hear while I can often keep my work related feedback on a more even emotional level. Because my wife and kids know me best (no hiding my weaknesses from them…ever) their advice is often on point and more personal in nature while my boss keeps his advice to something that I have more control over and may not be nearly as close to my inner nature if that makes any sense.

      As I hit that mid-life crisis, I often find myself looking for feedback that I haven’t gotten in the past, and its not unusual to see me walking into my boss’ office to get an azimuth check to make sure I am on the right path.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ Keeping an open mind is probably the biggest key to learning about ourselves. I think you do this consistently. Many of the rest of us would do well to follow your example here.

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  7. Leadership by example is a buzzword in most organization but it is also the most abused. How many times do subordinates stick to the rules only to find out that their boss violates the rules which he himself implemented. Being a leader doesn’t entitle you to exemptions. One important lesson here is that to be highly effective and respected, leaders must be good followers first, otherwise they end up with defiant employees.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Claire ~ Indeed! a boss who says one thing and does another, fools no one. Thank you for that and for taking the time to comment here.

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