We lead by example whether we mean to or not, thanks to the old saying "actions speak louder than words." But how do we know what sort of example we're setting?
Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, such as being aware of what impact we're having on others. This is impossible to do fully because, to use another cliché, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," meaning that everyone can take something different from our actions.
Still, we can gain reasonable insight into our impact on others by regularly taking stock: by getting feedback and by reviewing our own success criteria for setting the sort of example we want to set.
The Oddity of Leading by Example
We tend to associate leadership with deliberate attempts to influence people or with doing a good job in a leadership role. But leading by example is often unintentional, even accidental and it is an action, more precisely an impact on people, not a role.
However, we may not be as fully aware of the example we're setting as we'd like to be. We're so busy getting stuff done that we're not aware of being observed. The good news is that leading by example is remarkably easy. You don't need to have a leadership position and you don't need a vision. Also, you don't have to get involved in execution. When you set an example, you're leaving it to others to execute your example on their own.
To lead by example, you just need to do your best and be your best as much as possible. It's important to emphasize "as much as possible" because we're not machines. If we never had bad days, people wouldn't think we were human or they might not trust us, thinking we're just great actors trying to hide our bad side. Occasional bad days are OK. People will discount them if they know what you're like 80% of the time.
If you want to improve how you lead by example, start by making a list of the traits you want to display. Make your own choices, but here's a few possibilities to consider:
- Action orientation and energy – being a "can do" person who takes initiative, someone who proactively looks for new ways to make a difference.
- Positive attitude – remaining upbeat despite setbacks, not blaming others or circumstances but seeking solutions, focusing on the future.
- Authenticity/Integrity – being honest and open, standing up for important principles. This needs to be balanced against displaying a positive attitude. If you sugar-coat everything just to be positive, you won't come across as genuine.
- Innovation – showing that you are constantly looking for ways to improve products or processes, showing that you are fully engaged in helping the organization succeed.
- Trustworthiness – delivering on your promises and not betraying confidences, not bad-mouthing people behind their backs.
- Collaboration – supporting team members and colleagues across the organization, taking pleasure in the success of others, not being too self-promoting.
- Developing others – taking time to coach less experienced colleagues rather than leaving them to sink or swim or acting as if it's not your job.
- Resilience – keeping cool under pressure, trying not to blow your top or snap at people when you are feeling stressed out.
This list could be extended indefinitely but you no doubt want to create your own list by asking yourself what sort of leader you want to be or what traits you most admire in other leaders. You might find it helpful to think of those you least admire too so you can strive to avoid setting their sort of example.
Being a leader doesn't mean occupying a position with a lofty title. Everyone can lead, every day, even in small ways, either by promoting a better approach to something or by setting a positive example. To be seen as a leader, you must act like one. This doesn't mean acting like a superior being or a know-it-all. Leadership is compatible with humility. It's just a matter of behaving, as much as possible, the way the leaders you admire behave.
To show leadership, you don't need to come up with the next greatest thing in the world. You just need to convey a positive attitude, work smart and show that you are thinking about others and the broader organization, not just your own needs.
See also: Engage Yourself on how to involve yourself in your organization's business rather than waiting for your boss to engage you. See also: Microleadership on how all employees can show small-scale leadership every day. Want to read more on how leading by example is different from other ways of leading? See Leading by Example? How Odd!