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Leading by Example


“I lead by example” is a popular response and catch phrase we often hear people say when asked to describe their leadership. My initial response is, of course you do – everyone does. People in your family and organization pay more attention to what you do than what you say.

Leaders often talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion in their organizations, but when you sit in on their meetings, it is often evident that this is little more than lip service. Leading by example is often challenging to achieve; the call for different ideas and different perspectives is often shut down in the spirit of making a decision and moving quickly. Often, people do not want to hear what you have to say unless it supports their point of view … making “leading by example” an often elusive quest.

As I reflect on how I have led by example, particularly with my children, I have become acutely aware of how my behavior is at times incongruent with my words. One particular blind spot I have had relates to performance and achievement. Around the house and in my work, I have been quoted as saying that there is no such thing as losing; you either win or learn. I am a proponent of Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset,” in which she supports with research how the growth mindset is healthier and leads to more resilience. She writes that the growth mindset is based on learning and development and people possessing it realize that it takes time and persistence for them to reach their full potential; the fixed mindset is focused on doing well and performing flawlessly.

And while I have coached both of my high-achieving children that doing their best, learning, and bouncing back are the keys to long-term sustained success, I am very hard on myself whenever my performance falls short of stellar results. I either get frustrated, angry, or both. And often I use the anger to motivate myself to improve my performance dramatically. But this doesn’t happen before I have “led by example” for my children, modeling in my behavior that it is not okay to perform at less than 100 percent – and then wondering why they do not handle setbacks better.

Another misapplication of “lead by example” is when a leader, often proudly, states, “I wouldn’t ask my people to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.” While admirable, the problem with that belief is that leaders may actually plug the leadership pipeline, and prevent or slow down the development of their people by jumping in and doing things that are clearly not part of their role. It also may focus the attention and action on things that are urgent rather than on things that are strategically important for the business. Remember that the primary roles of leaders are to think, to listen, and to create the space and systems for their people to do great work. Don’t distract yourself by pitching in where you are not needed.

So the next time you are asked about your leadership, don’t bother saying that you lead by example; we all do. Instead, invest your time and energy in observing what example you are actually setting for your teams, organizations, and families, and have the courage to adjust what you are modeling, especially when it is incongruent with what you are saying.

To become more self-aware about your blind spots and areas of incongruence, contact us about one-on-one coaching and our LeadFORWARD process.

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1 Comment

  1. Deb Ford on July 12, 2019 at 2:45 am

    Great speech Ralph!

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