To lead by example means that you have to walk the talk. You tell people what to do, and get yourself dirty too. You align your actions with your words. We learn this as children. We learn how our parents live. Our children will learn the best way to live by our example. The same is true about leadership.
If you want people to follow, you have to lead by example. For example, I can pontificate all day about corporate values, but my employees won’t take it seriously unless I show how it is done. Words like trust, integrity, excellence, creativity, and innovation are abstract ideas.
This post is related to Model the Way.
Leadership by Example
What do we mean when we say lead by example?
I can give a working definition. I can illustrate the meaning of each by teaching actions aligned and not aligned to the values. But unless I model the way, the wind will blow my words away.
To lead by example requires clarity and conviction.
As a leader, I failed many times. How I wish I were the best model to my former employees. I was not so bad, but I wish I were a lot better. I was impatient. My expectations were too high that even I could not reach them. I was good at preaching but failed miserably in leading by example.
I failed to model the way.
Because of my son, JC, I realized the importance of leading by example. He was seven months and was still crawling. It was a joy playing with him.
But, as I watched him play, I thought about the kind of person I would want him to become.
I had an epiphany.
My son will not only inherit my DNA. Psychogenetics will be at work too. He will inherit how I behave during his formative years. Every observable behavior that me, my wife, and our relatives will influence how he thinks and act. He will inherit them too.
“But I am not the kind of person I wanted him to be,” I told myself.
I imagined that my son must have observed my bad habits. He must have seen my impatience and how short my fuse was. He must have heard me many times complain about how miserable our government was. He must have seen me as a workaholic father.
Yes, he must have also observed my few good traits. And how I wished he paid more attention to those traits.
I have to live by example.
To live by example, it dawned on me, does not mean that I must model the person I am today. I realized, then I resolved, that I must strive to model the best person that I want to be. I must be careful with how I speak and behave because he’ll absorb them.
I wish I had thought of this when my nephews were younger. Then, I could have become a better uncle and, more importantly, a better person.
You can apply this parenting lesson to leadership.
To lead by example means that I’ll do my damndest best; if that requires change, then I’ll change. My life is not just mine alone. My life has become a model to those who follow me.
How to Lead by Example
If you want to lead by example, I recommend that you reflect on who you want to be.
You can examine your values and beliefs. Consider your leadership principles. Then, brainstorm the specific behaviors you must practice.
Let me give you examples of how people I knew did it.
You get your hands dirty.
I was facilitating a teambuilding program for a pharmaceutical company. One of the activities was mud crawling. Everyone was to crawl. If others won’t be able to do it, someone has to do it twice or thrice.
Always, the expectation is that management team members won’t do it.
This particular team had one pregnant woman. Two others cannot play because of their medical condition. And they also have a new CEO they met for the first time.
“Who will crawl through the mud twice for them?”
“I’ll do it,” the CEO answered. He crawled three times.
I maintained my relationship with this organization for some time. The CEO, who got his whole body dirty, always walks the talk wherever he is.
He believes that leaders must do it first.
Sure, there are things that you don’t have to do anymore. Some tasks are more critical than others. But there are times when we need to lead by example.
Mel Tiangco taught me this simple leadership principle too. She said no one would make excuses when a leader does it first. Her employees trust, respect, and admire her because of this. So many of them have been with her for many years.
I saw this attitude in Perla Rempe, the former owner of the Farm at San Benito. The place is always clean. The people are always clean. All because she got her hands dirty.
Getting your hands dirty is a leader’s teaching tool. By involving yourself with the dirty work, no matter how small, like cleaning after your mess, you are teaching people what to do.
The next example comes from your mouth.
Watch your words.
We teach people through words. Through our words, old teachings get stickier. Through our words, new ideas come out.
This is why many teachers rely on the power of their words. Pastors can speak for hours to save a soul. Politicians make revolutions through words too.
Words are powerful, and whoever wields them becomes powerful too.
Words make a fixed mindset.
Those with a fixed mindset are leading by example too. They want those around them to think like them.
No one is born with a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is a product of what we learn from people. We learned it from our parents, teachers, preachers, and playmates.
For example, when I was young, I learned the following:
- We are poor. You can’t go to college.
- Your father is irresponsible. Your family will be poor forever.
- You cannot help it; you were born poor. You will die poor.
- You are intelligent, but you are lazy. You won’t get anywhere.
When repeated too many times, words become the truth to a person. So, for some time, those were my truths. [mfn] My dear reader, please remember that I grew up in the slums. The words I hear are often defeatist. People have grown dependent on politicians. Some rely on prayers and chants. Johny Midnight was their healer.[/mfn]
I believed and repeated what I often heard until one of our relatives in the US sent his old books to my father. I was ten. And my father didn’t read those books.
Words make a growth mindset.
I was in grade four when I first read How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Art of Selling, and How to Speak with Confidence.
The words in these books opened my eyes to new realities. I discovered the importance of having a growth mindset, coming up with strategies, and hard work.
These new ideas gave me hope. Those words taught me that poverty wasn’t my destiny. These books taught me that I could create the life that I wanted.
Of course, it was not easy.
When I told people the opposite of what they constantly hear, they thought I was a fool.
I was laughed at when I took my entrance examination for high school. When I passed the exam, one neighbor told everyone willing to listen that I belonged to the last section.
She didn’t know that 1-Sampaguita was the first section – and I was one of those who topped the exam.
Watch your words.
Watch what you tell yourself. And watch what you tell others. Your words have the power to create and destroy. Choose to create. Choose to add value. Choose growth.
That’s one way to lead by example.
The next one is what not to do so you can lead by example.
Loose lips are dangerous.
As leaders, we need to be careful.
I was nine years old when I started selling pandesal. I was earning five centavos per piece and sold two hundred pieces each morning. The pandesal was 25 centavos a piece.
A competitor baker recruited me to sell for them instead. They offered me a five plus one incentive. So I would be earning extra pandesal for every five that I will sell.
It was goodwill. And my nine-year-old brain told me that I owe the baker my allegiance.
They asked me about what I heard from the other bakery. So, freely, I told the baker and his wife what I heard. And my loose lips caused a very noisy fight at 5 in the morning because the baker’s wife started a shouting match in front of the other bakery.
A Barangay Tanod who knew my father told me to go home. I went home that day learning that you cannot tell everything to everyone.
Fast forward to this year.
I overheard a manager who said not-so-good things about another manager. His listeners were two managers and four of his subordinates.
He told them many stories about the manager who, he believed, caused him many frustrations. He told the story like a drunk man. And the two managers goaded him. And his subordinates listened as if their hunger for gossip were insatiable.
The next day, I talked to him in private. I told him that loose lips wouldn’t do him any good. It might harm the reputation of the other manager, but it won’t make his reputation good.
To advance in the organization, he must lead by example. Whatever he does becomes an example to others. Talking about his frustrations to others who could not do anything about it wasn’t helpful. His actions taught his subordinate what to do when they got frustrated with him.
We don’t have to tell everyone everything we know.
To lead by example, we ought to watch our words.
Explore many ways you can do to lead by example. Aside from joining my Breakthrough Leadership Workshops, you can start by reading articles that will help you get started.
- Start with identifying your personal values. Your values are your lenses to how you view the world. It also influence the way you make decisions and act. You can also explore the values we hold deeply as Filipinos. I explained how people who adhere to these values act.
- If you have not yet codified your leadership principles, you can explore this path too. To lead by example is to lead according to your principles.
- Be mindful of your vital behaviors too. What you do tells people what’s most important to do.
To lead by example is to live your damndest best.