The Best Leaders Lead by Example
A key aspect of management is too often neglected.
Posted February 10, 2016
I was never a big fan of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (one of the architects of the Vietnam War), but on one matter I thought he was dead right: He always felt a primary responsibility of management was, as he put it, to be “more Catholic than the Pope.”
This had nothing to do with religion, of course, but everything to do with setting the right kind of example, the absolute best “tone at the top.”
As a manager, or leader at any level, you can choose not to lead by example… and not play by the same rules you expect others to. But why would you want to? That is, if you want to have the best chances of succeeding.
There are two highly practical reasons why leading by example makes excellent career and business sense.
1) It’s effective.
2) It makes people want to follow you.
It sets the right tone for those in the lower levels of an organization who are closely watching (as most everyone is) how their leaders behave. It disarms any resentment that may be felt, rightly or wrongly, toward those in high managerial places. It’s difficult to resent managers who roll up their sleeves and wade into the trenches when they need to, and who share the same sacrifices their teams do. As famed philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer once put it, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.”
Dr. Schweitzer may have been exaggerating, but probably not a whole lot.
Surprisingly little direct data - The flip side of this coin is that not leading by example is one of the simplest and most needless ways to alienate people. In my own experience, I saw numerous careers undermined this way – careers of extremely talented executives who encountered difficulties because they didn’t exhibit the same behavior they asked of others. It’s a quick recipe for lost loyalty. This is a topic I write about with some frequency… but only because the problems associated with it are so preventable. It has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with entirely controllable behavior.
The issue receives surprisingly little attention in management literature. While research may address related matters, relatively few surveys seem to take on the subject directly. In one that I recently came across, a 2013 study from Root Inc., a strategy consulting firm, only 26% of workers strongly agreed “that managers embody the values they expect from their employees.”
While this may seem like a low number, keep in mind that a wide variety of large employee engagement surveys generally place engagement levels around the 30% percent mark. In other words, in the big picture there’s both ample employee discontent and ample room for management improvement.
Should such employee discontent all be laid at the feet of management not leading by example? To be sure, that would be a major oversimplification, as many factors contribute to low engagement scores. But it’s hard to think of a management attribute that’s more readily controllable – and can be so strong a force for positive influence – yet is too often needlessly neglected.
Thoughts? Always interested to hear readers’ perspectives…
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
* * *
Victor is author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World.
Find out why Howling Wolf Management Training is named what it is.