“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” — Albert Schweitzer, theologian, doctor, humanitarian, and more
At any dog park, there’s normally an eclectic mix of dogs. There might be hyperactive puppies, calm older dogs, playful golden retrievers, expressive beagles, and intense bulldogs. If you observe for a while, you’ll notice that each of these dogs tends to fall into a different role. Some set the example, while others assimilate quickly, following their lead.
Not to compare humans too closely with dogs, but the same dynamic is not entirely absent from workplaces. If someone steps forward and sets a strong example, people tend to gravitate to them, making an effort to emulate their actions.
What an Example Might Look Like
Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” Setting an example is about far more than words and intentions. Former halfback Rocky Bleier serves as an excellent example of someone who lived their values rather than merely speaking them and, as a result, inspired countless people to do the same.
During his service in Vietnam, Bleier suffered a terrible series of injuries. At the time, doctors informed him that his career playing football was over. Instead of accepting this prediction, Bleier chose to keep trying, showing up for training camp, embracing discipline, and spending two seasons attempting to capture a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ active roster. Eventually, he accomplished his goal. While there were ups and downs along the way, he went on to become a four-time Super Bowl champion.
Bleier’s personal accomplishments were clearly exceptional, but they weren’t the only way in which he set an example. There was also the way he prioritized the needs of his team, doing whatever it took to support his teammates and contributing to a culture where people felt their work mattered.
This created an environment in which players were motivated to excel and support each other’s efforts.
The Elements of a Strong Example
To begin setting a strong example for your team, keep your focus on what you personally can accomplish within your sphere of influence. Break down the concrete steps involved, rather than remaining focused on a broad concept of leadership.
- Are you truly present when you interact with people? Do you engage them, asking questions and demonstrating that you care?
- Do you connect on a level that goes beyond transactional conversations? Do you remember team members’ birthdays, ask about their families, and demonstrate that you care about their lives?
- Do you respect people’s time? Do you show up for meetings when you’re supposed to and prevent things from running too long?
- Do you follow up on your commitments? Do you return calls and emails when you say you will, keep your promises, and ensure your actions match your intentions?
- Are you transparent in your interactions with team members? Do you inform them of your plans and intentions, as well as potential challenges? Do you explain what they’re doing well and how they can improve? Do your team members understand the goals you are collectively working toward?
When you incorporate all of these behaviors into your leadership, you’re communicating their importance to your team. You create an expectation through your actions that will eventually become embedded into the culture, because intense, sustained alignment between values and actions creates culture.
Don’t merely say the right things. You might say that your organization is all about serving customers, but if you refuse to communicate with customers when they run into trouble with your product, that misalignment will quickly undermine any messaging. Trust takes years to build, but misaligned values turn people away immediately.
Preventing a Leadership Void
People tend to assume that these kinds of dynamics simply take care of themselves, but when a leader is not intentional about setting an example, eventually someone else will fill that void. As a work environment grows indifferent, you can count on someone stepping forward and imposing an order. That order is not always in the best interest of the group.
Offering an example and preventing a leadership void doesn’t require superhuman effort. Be sincere in your behavior and relentless in your actions. Look in the mirror each morning and ask yourself, “What can I do today to lead better? How can I reinforce my values with my actions?” Do this and your team members will follow your example.
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Author, Speaker, and Change Agent.
Chris leads a dynamic team of passionate change agents who are dedicated to partnering with organizational executives to create cultures that inspire, engage and ignite the best in people. Our work is dedicated to harnessing the power of culture to equip leaders, build amazing teams and align operation practices to delighting the customer and drive breakthrough results.