One way or another, leaders in any organization are always leading by example. While this idea is usually associated with the image of a leader charging headlong into the latest challenge, inaction can speak just as loudly as more proactive behaviors. A leader who withdraws from others and avoids engagement does just as much to set an example as a leader who is deeply involved and invested with their team’s success.The consequences of bad leadership are easy enough to measure. Research has shown that organizations with “poor” leadership perform almost three times worse than companies with “great” leadership. These results represent more than just bad management decisions. Setting a bad example through unethical behavior or decisions guided by self-interest can have a devastating effect on an organization. There’s a certain degree of truth to the old cliche about a “fish rotting from the head,” and companies that tolerate poor leadership will eventually pay a price for it in the form of diminished profits or high turnover rates.
By virtue of their visibility, a leader’s actions, behaviors, and attitudes are constantly being observed and interpreted by employees. Try as they might to distance themselves from this dynamic, leaders cannot avoid the fact that everything they do is a reflection of the values and ideology of the organization. It also conveys how well the organization adheres to the rules it sets for its employees. When leaders behave as if the rules do not apply to them and aren’t held accountable for their actions, it becomes easy for employees to tune out the latest company initiatives.
The real question, then, is not whether leaders set an example for their teams because they obviously do set an example simply by virtue of their position. What developing leaders should focus on, however, is what kind of an example they should be setting.
Leading to Build Trust
One of the most important steps leaders can take to set a good example for employees is to establish a foundation of trust. Without trust, leaders will have difficulty securing commitment and buy-in, making it far more difficult to meet the organization’s goals.
The first step in building trust can be accomplished by demonstrating credibility. Leaders must find ways to show that they not only possess valuable expertise, but also do not withhold or manipulate information to suit their own needs. For today’s collaborative teams, information sharing is absolutely essential, and leaders who are unwilling to be open and honest with their teams are effectively sabotaging their efforts. While this is not to suggest that leaders need to tell employees everything, sharing necessary details about decisions and data that affect their teams fosters a culture of collaboration and unity in the pursuit of the organization’s goals.
Effective leaders also set an example of reliability to further strengthen the bonds of trust with employees. They follow through on commitments and are consistent in their interactions with other people. By showing respect for their obligations, leaders help to reinforce the idea that everyone is accountable for their actions and behavior. Employees know they can count on them to do what they say they’re going to do. That reassurance makes the employees more likely in turn to take ownership and responsibility for their own tasks.
Leading to Foster Collaboration
While establishing trust is absolutely essential for building effective teams, leaders can also set a positive example to promote collaboration and communication among employees. Rather than adopting a uniform approach to all employees, skilled leaders treat everyone as a unique individual. They respect differences and regard people’s needs and concerns as valid. When leaders put the concerns of others above their own self-interests, they set an example discouraging selfish behavior that can damage an organization in the long run.
Many of the strategies used to foster collaboration can empower employees by making them feel valued and heard. By setting a standard for mutual respect and empathy, leaders can promote the same values in their teams to help them work together more effectively. Conflict management, in particular, is a good showcase for this approach because it provides leaders with an opportunity to demonstrate how differences can be overcome productively in ways that benefit the organization as a whole.
Leading to Inspire
Setting an example isn’t just about finding ways to motivate employees in the short term; it can also inspire them in more lasting ways. Inspirational leadership generates enthusiasm and passion for the organization’s mission by helping employees to align their personal values with company initiatives. An inspired team is more likely to meet its goals, demonstrate higher levels of engagement, and produce higher quality work.
Leaders are in a unique position to inspire their employees because they can set an example for how to create a sense of purpose within the organization. Very often they do this by giving without any expectation of getting something in return, rather, they support their team members because they are deeply invested in the team’s success. When employees are consistently supported, they’re more likely to go the extra mile to accomplish the team’s goals.
While leaders need to focus on effective strategies that help their teams produce positive results, they also need to consider how the way they deploy those strategies is perceived. Whether they like it or not, they’re constantly being observed by employees who are watching to see if they “practice what they preach.” By setting a consistent example for employees that shows how an individual can align the organization’s goals with their own actions and values, leaders can establish a powerful model for employees to turn to for guidance.