Leading by example

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My clients and students over the years often have asked, what is the most difficult aspect of leadership? My response without any hesitation has been “leading by example,” or integrity. I define integrity as doing what you say you will, walking the walk, or talking the talk. 

How difficult can it be to simply follow through on your promise? If it were easy to do this, we would not have the saying, “It’s easier said than done.” The reason this happens is there can be a disconnect between intent and behavior. Just because we intend to do something does not mean we always behave the way we say we will. 

Kenneth Rhee

So, the model of integrity looks something like this: Intent -> Behavior -> Outcome. In other words, intent leads to behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes. Now, the issue is that the connections can be broken in several ways. 

First, intent might not lead to corresponding behavior. Second, intent and behavior might not be congruent. And finally, behaviors might not lead to desired outcomes. 

If we look at what is controllable by you, it seems the congruence between intent and behavior is the key to this model. When it comes to leading by example, it is a matter of showing congruence between your intent and your behavior. 

Instead of trying to enforce or command people to do certain things, if you as a leader carry out an act, then you will be leading more by examples and inspiration rather than coercion.

The consequence of not leading by example can be a loss of trust. I recall one time sitting in an auditorium as a consultant when the CEO of the organization was presenting, and I noticed that people around me were snickering quite a few times during the speech. I asked them after the speech why they had been snickering. Their answer: “He says those things, but he never follows through on those.” 

Another, recent example: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have been telling their customers that they have a policy that calls for social distancing and masks, but a recent article in the New York Times suggests that some airlines are not putting these policies into practice . If airlines want their customers to fly again, it is imperative that they regain trust by demonstrating integrity.

Leaders often speak of empowering their employees, but too frequently the minute anyone tries to innovate, a hammer comes down. One of my former clients told me that after being shut down multiple times by upper management, she had pretty much given up sending her ideas upward. She told me she had to make a choice to either take the initiative without getting permission and deal with the consequences, or stay quiet. I wonder how much longer she will be working at her current organization. 

So, what can leaders do to demonstrate more integrity and build more trust? One solution is to increase the congruence between intent and behavior. This can be done by making behaviors habitual. That way, behavior becomes unconscious and automatic. So, if you have a difficult time leading by example, make it your habit. 

The second way is to act with focus and purpose and engage in deliberate practice. When you walk into a meeting, try to empower your employees; act with focus and purpose so that your execution shows both conviction and integrity. Afterward, you can continue the cycle of deliberate practice so that you are always mindful of how congruent your behavior is to your intent. 

Perhaps more importantly, though, when leaders do walk the walk (or talk the talk), the results can be profound. For instance, experts say a CEO walking around the office in a mask sends a profound message to employees: “The best leaders don’t enforce rules,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. 

Leading by example can be the most powerful but also the most difficult part of leadership. As human beings, we are all fallible, and it is easy to slip into practice that goes against your values and beliefs. The only way to guard against this is to maintain vigilance, but that is what makes it so hard in the first place since it is difficult to sustain and easy to become complacent.  

Kenneth Rhee is the dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Nazareth College.

One thought on “Leading by example

  1. Wise words that are too often ignored by top brass. Thank you, Kenneth Rhee. This is excellent advise for people who profess to be leaders. As a top administrator working for the County, I taped a sign on the wall next to my desk. “People are watching you, not listening to you.” I hope it kept me on the straight and narrow of good leadership.

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