Crash Course in ... Leading by example

As Albert Einstein put it: 'Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.'

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Willie Walsh is asking BA staff to follow him in working a month unpaid, and leaders are now expected to offer model behaviour. So how do you lead by example?

You don't have a choice. 'From the moment you take up a leadership role, people will be watching you,' says Donna Ladkin, senior lecturer in organisational learning at Cranfield School of Management. 'So you are leading by example; the question is whether it's the example you want to set.'

Be strategic. Identify the behaviours you want people to emulate. Some of these are driven by your organisation's values, others by the business context. 'If you ask your people to work unpaid, they'll expect to see that this is consistent with a broader business strategy and not a fad,' says Andrew Day, an organisational psychologist at Ashridge Business School. 'They need to see a rationale, and that this is not just a heroic gesture.'

Walk the talk. 'Leading by example means you don't ask others to do what you are not prepared to do yourself,' says Steve Newhall, vice president of talent management consultancy DDI. 'The whole idea is heavily linked to integrity, and people's antennae are tuned to hypocrisy right now.'

Be aware of symbolism. 'A client told me there was a raft of cars up for replacement among his senior team, just after people had been laid off,' says Newhall. 'I urged him to find a way to delay, because of the message it would send out to see those brand-new cars in the car park.'

Show your tough side. It's not all about self-sacrifice. Says Day: 'Giving tough feedback to people who are not performing - in a developmental way - may be the behaviour you want people to emulate.'

Be visible. 'Leaders need to lead,' says Day. 'It's not enough to retreat to the boardroom and tell people what you want them to do. You need to meet people face to face, rather than avoiding anxiety-provoking situations.'

Validate. Check that the example people are digesting is the one you intended. Cultural surveys and 360-degree appraisals can help secure this feedback. 'It's not a quick fix; people will watch over an extended period to see how congruent your actions are,' says Ladkin. 'The best way to find out what people are really thinking is to talk to them.'

Broaden your audience. The example you set through leadership should be aimed at external audiences as well as your own people, adds Ladkin. 'For example, we're in a global marketplace for the best talent, and candidates will be influenced in their decisions by the examples that leaders in that organisation have set.'

Do say: 'The leadership that we show now during hard times will be remembered for years to come.'

Don't say: 'I'm going to be holidaying in Tuscany instead of the Caribbean this year, and I expect you all to do the same.'

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