You’ve probably heard and accepted the aphorism, “Lead by example,” but what does it mean? Many define it as setting a good example for others to follow. And while there is some truth to this — it’s not the whole story. Leaders have weaknesses, and given the choice between a difficult or an easy task, most people will take the latter. Direct reports usually copy weaknesses before strengths.

What Can You Do About It?

• Catalog your weaknesses — You must be brutally honest with yourself. The best way to avoid spreading your weaknesses to your team is to improve your shortcomings. Improvement begins with awareness. Ask a trusted friend to review your weaknesses with you.
• Create an improvement planConduct a B-Mod (behavioral modification) with consequences for yourself. Form new constructive habits and follow them for a month, write them down, make an outline, analyze your weaknesses, read how to improve them, ask a mentor for help, or all of the above.
• Make others aware of your weakness — While managing a fifty person call center, it became apparent to me that one of my weaknesses was counterproductive. Not wanting any of my five managers to copy this behavior, I took them aside and shared my weakness and my plan for improvement. I also asked for their help by having them use my middle name when they “caught” me — it worked.

To set a good example, you may need to first improve the poor examples you present. To improve your imperfections, you must admit you’re not perfect and be aware of your shortcomings. Devising and following an improvement plan, while asking others for help, is a step in the right direction. Setting the example of self-improvement can be just as important as improving your weakness.

Have you had the privilege of working with a leader who set good examples, or the opposite — the, “Do as I say, not as I do!” manager? What did you learn from them?

What Happens When Leaders Set the Wrong Example? 

Do as I say not as I do

I once worked directly with the owner of a growing mid-size company. In the ten years I was with the organization it grew from a net volume of six million per year to more than 20 million. In the beginning, the owner set a great example, working as hard as anyone; going on sales calls, inspecting work, training, and conducting meetings. But as time went on he spent less and less time in the day-to-day operations. He began leaving every day by five and spent two or three weekends a month at a beach home. The business continued to thrive, and I was happy for him, but he expected the rest of us to work 60-70 hours per week including every weekend. I and others left the organization that we had helped build and believed in.

What Happens when Leaders don’t Follow the Rules?

The first thing that happens is others think they don’t have to follow the rules either. If the boss doesn’t follow the procedure, use the form, or work with the software, then it becomes the rule for other members of the team, especially if they’re tenured and feel entitled. But there’s a bigger problem looming than specific policies, systems, and procedures not being followed. The danger is that all rules will be questioned. If an exception can be made for one procedure why can’t it be made for another?  The exception becomes the rule.

What Happens when Leaders Lie?

There may be nothing more important to building a team than establishing trust and nothing so easy to destroy. If a leader omits part of the truth, fails to fulfill a promise, or doesn’t carry through with an initiative—are those lies? Whenever a leader misleads a customer, vendor, or employee, every team member exposed to this behavior will be more inclined to copy the behavior when it fits their purposes. They’ll also lose some level of commitment and belief in the organization.

What Happens when Leaders are Subversive?

I once worked with a department manager who was a talented, hard working team leader. He’d jump in and help his team, work overtime and do whatever it took to get the job done. He never asked his direct reports to do anything he wouldn’t do. However, he fostered a negative environment with high turnover because he complained to the wrong people. For example, if upper management asked his team to work over he wouldn’t say a word to management but he’d tell his team those SOB’s are making us work! He lost a lot of employees.

Leaders are People

Leaders are going to make mistakes, they’re human, but there’s a difference between an error in judgement, and a management style. Every leader leads by example, unfortunately some of the examples aren’t the best. Are you in a leadership role? What example do you set?

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

So, does your business have a  management training plan? Because, if not, many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash