Are You Self-Aware Enough To “Lead By Example?”

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Our guest blogger is Lonnie Martin, Vistage Chair. For more information about Vistage, please visit www.vistage.com.

I wonder how many times I’ve been asked what leadership is all about?…many, many times.  My answer always includes that oft spoken yet vague cliché “leading by example” that I picked up along the way of my life and made my own.  I decided to think the other day what that phrase means beyond the obvious.

I played on a lot of sport teams in my life, and probably the first time I heard “lead by example” was from one of my coaches.  You could guess how a coach uses the phrase to mold behavior, e.g. come to practice on time, run hard to 1st base on infield hits, wear my uniform right, etc.  But the phrase stuck with me…and that’s because my leadership style has been to not ask something of an employee that wasn’t both important (in my view) and that I wasn’t willing to do myself.

Plus, when I used that phrase I also hoped my employees would embody all those attributes of myself that I considered to be my “good qualities.”

It was only much later when I realized I might also be unthinkingly setting the example of my less good traits.

In fact, we do lead by example.  People pay attention to what leaders do in ways large, small, and even very small.  The examples and patterns we purposely, or inadvertently or unconsciously, set in their eyes might be good, or less good, or even bad with respect to what’s required to operate a company, to serve customers, to interact with each other, to accomplish individual and team goals, etc.

I do indeed believe leadership is leading by example, and actually, maybe it’s only about that—what part of running a business, or department isn’t encompassed by “leading by example?”

But are you self-aware enough about how you go about your business and personal life so everybody has a chance to observe and mimic what’s important to you?  The list of things we do to set examples, and that people observe about us is endless.  Are you on time?  Do you listen well?  Are you organized or disorganized?  Are you detail oriented?  Do you follow up promptly?  Do your meetings have agendas?  How do you treat customers?  How do you deal with stress?  Etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum.

There are no right answers about the very many best practices in running a business, and different businesses may need or want practices others don’t want.  But as the leader you do need to think deeply about all those practices you believe serve the business the best, and then live all of them all the time to the best of your ability so your employees understand the basis of your expectations.  And you need to always be on the search for “better best practices” than you even know (which is one thing a Vistage CEO peer group is great at uncovering).

There’s been a long running “nature-or-nurture” debate as to whether leaders are born or can be molded/made.  My conclusion is that the best leaders are the most self-aware and think the deepest about all those individual traits (we often call that culture) and practices that a business needs to consistently practice.  And in my view, both can be learned and/or decided…we need not count on Mother Nature to randomly anoint good leaders.

If you’re not a good leader then either you haven’t thought too deeply about what cultural traits/behaviors the business needs to be successful, or your own behavior is not consistent with that culture leading to confusion among the troops.  One of the most important examples for a leader to set is to not let the organization deviate from that culture through benign neglect or compromise.

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