Leading by example

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“Make it your business to draw out the best in others by being an exemplar yourself.” — Epictetus

Link to biography of Muriel Anderson
Muriel Anderson, clinical associate professor, University at Buffalo School of Management

In my role as a mentor and coach for the School of Management’s leadership programs and student clubs, I am frequently asked, “What is one important piece of leadership advice you would give?” My answer is always three simple words: “Lead by example.” Certainly, we’ve all heard this before. We know that leading by example can be incredibly effective, and it is something anyone can do regardless of background, gender or Myers-Briggs personality type.

But then why isn’t it commonly practiced by leaders? In a 2013 study by strategy consultant firm Root Inc., workers were asked whether their “managers embody the values they expect from their employees.” Only 26% of workers strongly agreed.

Great leaders influence the actions of others by exhibiting the characteristics they expect from them. During my career, I’ve had my share of bosses who abused their power, asked others to do what they were not willing to do, brought unhealthy emotions to work and made no investment in their subordinates’ development. But even bad leaders can teach us something — what not to do!

Conversely, I have been lucky to work with some great leaders, who taught me how to behave and respond in ways that were valuable to the organization, as well as how I could be a better leader myself, wherever I landed down the road. They understood that providing opportunities for employees to develop and grow was an investment in people who were key stakeholders in contributing to the company’s bottom line. These were bosses who worked hard, showed mutual respect for others and were not afraid to get their hands dirty. They were genuinely concerned about my development and gave me stretch assignments that were achievable.

These leaders took me to senior-level meetings and, with their supportive coaching ahead of time, allowed me to present my ideas to management. If they expected me to deliver a project on time, they removed obstacles when possible and even rolled up their sleeves to assist in a crisis. They held frequent performance feedback meetings that confirmed which of my behaviors resulted in positive outcomes for the organization and suggested which behaviors could be changed to have greater impact. They shared their own mistakes and failures, so their employees could learn from them. These leaders checked their egos at the door.

Of course, there are challenges with leading by example that may explain why it isn’t commonly practiced. Certainly there is the busyness that comes with the greater responsibilities of being a leader. When time is scarce, it is easy to tell subordinates what to do.

But, although words matter, what leaders do matters considerably more. Effective leaders take the time to think about how their subordinates can be more effective and achieve higher levels of accomplishment and job satisfaction. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is the leader’s ability to look in the mirror and recognize the mismatch between their intentions and actions. Such recognition requires self-awareness, which takes both openness and a significant amount of dedication.

A leader can start with the three simple “traffic light” questions:

  • Green: What am I doing that is effective and therefore should be continued?
  • Yellow: What am I doing that could be improved to be more effective?
  • Red: What am I doing that gets in the way of being effective and should be stopped?

Leaders should ask themselves these questions, and ask their followers, to identify gaps and work toward closing those gaps. It’s most helpful to ask followers for specific lead-by-example stories to illustrate these questions and learn from their candid feedback.

Research-based and anecdotal evidence all supports what most of us already believe: Leading by example works. Employees are much more willing to go above and beyond for an organization when leaders are clear about what they want and then make sure their words and actions support that.

Muriel Anderson is a clinical associate professor in the University at Buffalo School of Management. A CPA with experience in recruitment, leadership training and banking, Anderson teaches accounting and human resources courses, and works with MBA students to assess and improve their leadership competencies.

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