When starting with a new executive coaching client I often ask ‘what kind of leader do you want to be?’ ‘Someone who leads by example‘ gets a lot of the votes.
As much as I like that answer, it can often be an easy idea to speak, but the hardest action to take. Where do you start? Many folks start by talking about technical expertise. They want to leverage subject matter expertise. That’s fine if you are sitting in a middle management chair within an organization.
But what does it really mean to lead by example? What things should you do? How do you do it? Who’s paying attention? When should you do it?
Let me share a story. Recently, I began a coaching engagement with a large publicly traded company. I have several of their leadership team members assigned to me. Just as I began my weekly round of meetings, I was informed a very senior executive had passed away suddenly, at work, on the job.
Apparently, this man had been with the company for almost 30 years. He had been integral in its growth and success.
All of my individual clients were visibly shaken when speaking of this man. It was easy to see how revered and well respected this gentleman was. Each person shared with me their own personal experience of being mentored and inspired by him. No one was without a story about “Bill” (the name has been changed to protect confidentiality).
The leadership examples Bill modeled were clear, distinct, and memorable. Truly the acclaim a leader should create. As people began explaining the things Bill did to endear his tribe, I asked “why don’t you try doing that?” The usual answer was, “Yes, I really should try to be that way.”
We see examples of leadership in small gestures, calm ways, meaningful mentions, and quiet resolve, yet we often struggle to decide how to add a skill or trait to our leadership tool kit. Why?
One of the best ways to build trust with the team is to lead by example. Here are seven ways to lead by example and inspire your team.
Get your hands dirty.
Do the work and know your trade. Stay present with the team where they work. Walk the floor, the shop, and the field. Don’t let yourself get caught behind closed doors in the corner office. As to the details, you don’t have to be the most advanced technician on the team, but you must have an in-depth understanding of your industry and your business. Learn the subject matter if you have to. Leaders have many responsibilities, but it is important to work alongside your team. This is a great way to build trust and continue to develop your own knowledge and skills.
Watch what you say.
Actions do speak louder than words, but words can have a direct impact on morale. For better or for worse. Be mindful of what you say, to whom, and who is listening. Always show support for all team members. If someone needs extra guidance, provide it behind closed doors. Keep explanations simple and clear. Remember a confused mind says “NO”. Don’t confuse people with lofty technical speak. Just get to the point.
Respect the chain of command.
One of the fastest ways to cause structural deterioration, foster confusion, and damage morale is to go around your direct reports. All team members need to respect the leadership at every level. If the senior leaders don’t respect the chain of command, why would anyone else? This includes the ranks below you in the organization. Don’t skip level jump a supervisor to talk with a worker. Sure you can share casual banter in the workplace with anyone, but when you have directives, follow and support the chain.
Listen to the team.
As leaders, sometimes we are so consumed with providing directives, giving orders, and, well, talking that we forget to stop and listen. If the recruitment and training engine is functioning well, you should have a whole team of experts to turn to for advice.
One sign of good leadership is knowing that you don’t know everything. Listen and get feedback from your team regularly.
As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top. Blame roles uphill. Great leaders know when to accept that mistakes have been made and take it upon themselves to fix them. It doesn’t matter if one of your team members messed up or you did. If you are the leader, you need to take responsibility. We hear about the notion that “I’ve got your back.” Prove it by taking flak when it’s aimed at the team. Let the buck stop on your desk. Put the monkey on your back.
Let the team do their thing.
Stop micromanaging. Communicate the mission, vision, values, and goals. Then step back and let the team innovate. Setting this example for the team will encourage your other managers to do the same. Coach and mentor when you have to or when someone presents a problem, but stop solving all the problems. Teach others how to do that.
Take care of yourself.
Wellness and fitness are essential for good leadership. The more you take care of yourself, the more energy you will have and the better work you will do. The only way to build a fitness-oriented culture is to lead by example. Get in shape and lead from the front. This part is not just about physical fitness but also mental toughness. Find time to recharge, especially after long-distance runs in fast-paced, high-pressure situations like big project delivery or special market shifts. You must re-calibrate periodically. Renew your mind as well as your heart for what it is you are doing.