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Have you ever wondered what separates a strong team from a weak one?
The answer is usually: their leader.
Strong teams have ethical leaders that lead by example. They shine a light on the path ahead. They also show employees how to handle failure and what kind of behaviors they should have.
In return, employees mirror their leaders’ behavior. They walk in their footsteps, learn from their mistakes, and contribute meaningful ideas.
Before we cover how to lead by example, let’s review what leading by example means and what can happen when you don’t.
What does "lead by example" mean?
The mark of a good leader lies in their ability to "walk the talk." In this section, we’ll review what it means to lead by example.
To lead by example means to guide others through your behavior instead of your words. Your intention is to inspire others to copy your behavior.
The opposite of leading by example is to say one thing and do another. The saying “do as I say, not as I do” may have worked in the past, but it has no place in today’s world.
Modern employees want to see that your actions mirror what you say. This means aligning your habitual practices, routines, and behaviors with your core values.
That doesn't mean that you get it right every time. But employees are quick to notice inconsistency and contradictions in their managers and leaders. Alignment is at the heart of being an authentic and genuine leader.
In the end, the purpose of leadership is to be the change you want to see in your organization.
Why is it important to lead by example?
In this section, we’ll explain four reasons why it’s important to lead by example:
1. Boosts employee morale
A great leader knows that their actions influence employee attitude, satisfaction, and performance. When leaders lead by example, morale goes up. This leads to greater company loyalty and higher productivity.
2. Builds trust and respect
Someone who leads by example can expect to receive trust and respect from their team. Superiors see them as someone who is capable of running a team, and employees see them as trusted mentors.
A trusted leader can also inspire teammates to respect and trust each other. This organizational cohesiveness can increase customer loyalty.
3. Fosters a positive work culture
Workplace culture is the character of an organization. It may include the business’s goals, work practices, beliefs, and behaviors.
Businesses that have leaders who "walk the talk" embody these values daily. This commitment to workplace values inspires a positive work culture and happy employees.
4. Increases productivity
It’s easier for teams to be productive when they see their leader doing the hard work, keeping commitments, and focusing on shared outcomes. There tends to be a deeper desire to work hard and do work that makes the team proud.
When a leader's actions and words align, the team doesn't waste energy trying to decode their intent or agenda. Through example, leaders also teach their teams to develop more effective and efficient processes.
What can happen when you don’t lead by example?
In this section, we’ll share what can happen when you don’t lead by example.
1. Low work ethic
When you don’t set a good example, one of the first things to go is work ethic. Your followers will struggle to perform well if they see you performing poorly.
2. Low morale
One of the quickest things that kills workplace mood is poor leadership. It’s challenging for employees to feel satisfied and motivated if they don’t have a leader they trust.
3. High turnover rate
Hiring and training new employees is one of the most costly parts of a business. Employees who answer to poor leaders have a higher rate of churn.
4. Inefficient systems
Leaders who lead by example show their teams how to do things faster and better. They demonstrate systems thinking and a continuous improvement mindset. But poor leaders don’t take the time to teach their teams how to be efficient. They don't demonstrate how to take a critical view of systems and processes.
Without manager support, teams scramble to figure things out the hard way. This can lead to ineffective and inefficient systems.
5. More workplace accidents
Employees look to their leaders for clues about what is actually valued or important in the organization. When leaders don't model safe behavior, teams learn that it is not a priority. Without a good role model, teams may miss or ignore important workplace safety training. This can lead to costly mistakes and workplace accidents.
6. Lack of trust and respect
Employees question leaders that don’t lead by example. They struggle to trust their manager’s decisions and leadership style.
7 ways to lead by example
Here are seven ways to lead by example:
1. Sharpen your leadership skills
One of the best ways to lead by example is to learn how to do it. This means taking advantage of the best leadership training you can get your hands on.
Training can help you build the skills, mindset, and behaviors needed to perform at your peak. Not only can this help you be a better leader, it can also help you build more resilient teams.
2. Be constructive when handling conflict
You can’t expect your employees to handle conflict well if you don’t. This means addressing conflict calmly and productively. The goal is to diffuse the tension and work toward a solution.
For instance, let’s say your superior is questioning you in front of your team. He’s confused why you ordered more inventory than usual, and he’s upset about the high cost.
Instead of defending your decision, first acknowledge his concern. Then — briefly and neutrally — explain your reasoning and follow it up with a solution.
For example, you could say:
“I hear you. I did order a higher amount than usual, and I can see why you’re worried. The reason I ordered more inventory is that next month is a major holiday, and we've been running low. I wanted to be sure we would have enough stock for our customers.
Last year we sold out fast, and our customers weren’t happy. How about next time I can let you know before I make a big buy? Would that be okay?”
3. Communicate kindly
Beyond handling conflict, a healthy dialogue is important for all interactions. This demonstrates that you care about your team and customers.
When you go into the office or into a call, greet your team with a smile and a warm "hello." If an employee comes to you with a question, answer it politely.
If a customer complains, respect their concerns and help them find a solution.
4. Bounce back after failure
Failure is a natural part of life and business. It can happen anytime we take risks or make decisions.
If we feel defeated and ashamed of failure, it can prevent us from trying again. It can also spill over into other areas of our lives, keeping us from reaching our fullest potential.
One of the best ways to inspire your employees to perk up and try again is by showing them how.
Did you lead a new product launch that failed to produce sales? Tell your team what you learned from your mistake. Did you help scale a sister company too early? Explain what went wrong and head to business training.
The key is to dust yourself off and try again, encouraging your employees to do the same.
5. Practice ethical leadership
Ethical leadership means behaving according to a set of strong moral principles. These values include integrity, fairness, honesty, respect, and transparency.
Ethical leadership is a conscious way of perceiving the world around us. It helps us understand our circumstances and respond in healthy ways.
To practice ethical leadership, align your goals and actions with strong values.
Here are some ways to practice ethical leadership:
- Report unethical behavior
- Do the right thing even when nobody’s watching
- Own up to your mistakes
- Be reliable and dependable
- Treat all employees fairly
- Value every team member
- Follow the rules
- Set the standard for excellence
6. Celebrate diversity
To celebrate diversity, be adamant about hiring a diverse team of employees.
Here are some other ways to celebrate diversity:
- Create policies and procedures that make all individuals feel welcome.
- Be open-minded and encourage different perspectives.
- Listen to and recognize team members.
- Make sure each employee has an equal chance at a professional opportunity.
- Host employee events that celebrate different cultures.
Creating a workforce where all team members feel equal is one the most important ways to lead by example.
7. Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself and self-care is essential for your well-being and your team’s. After all, it's difficult to be a good leader if you’re not feeling well.
To perform at optimal levels, take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health. Drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, and eat healthy meals every day.
You’ll also need coping tools to manage your stress levels and emotions.
2 instances of leading by example
Here are two instances of leaders leading by example:
Leading by example 1
Julie is a manager at a local bank with a small team of seven employees. When she walks into work, she greets her team with a smile and asks how their day’s going.
She then calls everyone into a morning meeting. Instead of leading with her agenda, Julie gives each employee a chance to voice ideas. She celebrates their ideas and asks them to create a proposal to bring their ideas to life.
Afterward, she moves on with her agenda and answers questions along the way. After the meeting, she offers to help her employees with their proposals. They happily accept her help, and the team works together to create an action plan.
Leading by example 2
Sam is a customer service manager for a phone company. He shows up to work a few minutes early every day to plan his agenda.
When his team starts to arrive, he greets them warmly and asks them what they did the night before.
Afterward, he begins to praise each team member for their work efforts from the day before. He even recognizes each employee for a specific skill they showed.
When it’s time to start answering calls, Sam grabs a headset like he does every day. When he’s not putting out fires or helping employees, Sam answers calls like the rest of the team.
Put your new skills to work
Now that you have a better idea of what it means to lead by example, it’s time to put your new skills to work.
Here’s a simple exercise you can use to set your intention and keep yourself accountable:
- How can I show up for my team today?
- What does my team need help with?
- What do I want them to do that I should also be doing?
- How can I recognize my team today?
- Am I living up to the standards I want my employees to live up to?
- What can I do right now to model ethical behavior?
- What do I need to help my employees with right now?
- Am I focusing on important tasks?
- Did I show excellence today?
- If so, what did I do right?
- If not, what should I do next time?
- How can I be a better leader tomorrow?
Leading by example: helping others tap into their potential
Leaders lead by example when they set the standard of excellence they want their employees to follow. With strong ethical values and practices, you can help your team reach its potential. Leading by example proves to your team that what you say and do matters.
Need help getting there? At BetterUp, we love helping teams thrive. Request a demo to find out more.