Leading By Example

Tomorrow I will see a close friend and former boss who taught me a lot about business. One of the things he taught me was that actions speak louder that words. Rule #1: Do something.

Savage Chicken: Do what I say

People like to use the phrases ‘walk the walk’ and ‘leading by the example‘ but don’t provide any details on what it means. My former boss taught me three questions to use as a litmus test to see if I was really doing it:

How do you spend your time?

People notice the disconnect between what you say and what you do. If you want quality to be important, pay extra attention to spelling and formatting.

What questions do you ask?

The questions you ask signal employees about the topics you think are important. Employees won’t be interested in strategic objectives if you never talk about them.

What do you recognize and reward?

Why people are rewarded and promoted demonstrate your seriousness about a specific set of corporate principles. If you care about innovation, reward risk takers; even if they fail.


It’s a fantastic way to keep yourself on track and has served me well my entire career. Of course, as Dilbert so eloquently points out, not all leadership by example should be commended.

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11 Responses to Leading By Example

  1. creativedifference December 31, 2008 at 7:53 am #

    I like the 3 questions, but also feel that we might need to go deeper to try to connect up what a leader might consciously lead and espouse, and what they actually do. My experience has been that the role of emotion and mindset in leadership is such that often a leader acts in a way that is at odds to what they might “rationally” believe. Using the litmus test above is helpful, but what do you then do with it? I think we then need to look behind the leader’s assumptions, biases and fears, be the leader someone we are working with, or ourself. Do you promote someone you like? How do you judge someone is effective? More importantly, does the extent to which you judge someone good or poor create that performance. Is that judgement based on our preconceptions, or did we give them a chance?

    My view would be that leaders need to be mindful of the litmus test, but also reflect on how they think, and what their own bias is, when making judgements.

    • Mary December 9, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      Well said, creative difference. Personal insight, awareness and balance!

  2. Robert E January 5, 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    Everyone is second-guessing leaders, from Wall Street analysts to potential challengers, naysayers, all varieties of kibbitzers. And we don’t have to look far to see the results of bad advice and decisions – in the political arena as well as with financial institutions and obviously in Dilbert cartoons. But should-ofs, could-ofs, would-ofs are merely post-mortums.
    The importance of having a mentor is having someone that isn’t just second-guessing or critiquing your decisions. A mentor helps you understand the “how” and the “why” in making decisions, not just what decisions to make.
    To have a boss that sees something in you that you may not see yourself, and to help you grow and profit from their experience, so that, in turn, you can do so for others is a great way to lead by example. You were lucky to have a former boss like that.

  3. Jonathan January 5, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

    CreativeDifference has a good point. We need a way to be objective about our leadership performance. However, most people don’t even notice the disconnect between what they say is important and the signals that they send their organization based on what they actually do. The litmus test was designed to heighten awareness but it’s not enough by itself.

    Robert: I was indeed very lucky to have that boss and mentor. Before his tenure, I was a developer who didn’t really understand the customer point of view. He drove that home. However, I might note that leaders and managers are not necessarily the same thing. I myself am probably a better leader than a manager, and probably a better mentor than either of the others. Leaders and mentors tend to influence more than they control.

  4. Rani Goel January 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    The discussion and difference between a “leader” and a “manager” is an interesting one and as the names suggest one is trying to lead, set vision and get everyone on the team to tow in one direction. The “manager” on the other hand is more tactical and working on getting stuff done through/via his or her team as well as take care of air and water needs of the people on the team.

    I have worked for some great leaders who showed a passion and committment to the goals they were trying to achieve and led by example. Really “walking the talk”. This one leader, who was trying to develop a large ecosystem of partners for the new company platform, made 3 calls, personally, every day, starting at 7:00 am to 3 potential partners. With the result that soon there was a large ecosystem of partners and the same value system permeated throughout the organization


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