Leadership by Example (or it isn’t at all)

When I was 14 years old, my dad and I were doing yardwork together in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base. It was mid-summer and it was sweltering. We were both soaked with sweat and took a break. I stepped under the eaves of the roof to get into the shade and my dad stepped out into the blazing sunshine and lit a menthol cigarette. I’ve never seen a happier face on a human being as he took a long, satisfying drag. As he drifted in bliss with the cloud of exhaled smoke, he quickly whipped his head around to me and sternly said, “Don’t ever smoke, D.J. It can kill ya.”

Laughable, right?

Why? Because when we see a glaring disconnect between what one does and what one says, the leadership model is out of alignment and lacks credibility. In other words “do as I say not as I do” didn’t work for us as kids and it doesn’t work for us as professionals in a team setting today.

Everything I have ever experienced in leadership: leading six different teams of people as an Air Force officer, books I’ve read, countless conversations with elders of almost 500 Native Nations, CEOs, business and community leaders, high-ranking military officers, etc. has taught me one thing over and over again one rock-solid lesson. If you’re not leading by example, you’re not leading at all.

That being said, I do not mean that we lead by being a perfect example — none of us are perfect and never will be — but it does mean that we lead with an example that is worthy of respect and followership. In fact, I think some of the best displays of leadership we can ever offer to co-workers, team members or even our own children, is how to handle ourselves when everything fall apart and the vice grips of life are crunching our little heads. That is when we get to show real resilience, persistence and a willingness to pick ourselves up again and find a solution to our challenges.

A quick way to destroy a leadership model is to expect something from someone else that we aren’t willing to deliver. When that happens, our leadership model is out of alignment and ineffective. I had a conversation with a crusty, curmudgeonly guy in a leadership position who wore his bad attitude like a jumpsuit, from head to toe. He grumbled, complained about anything and everything — then in the same breath had the nerve to accuse his team of having a bad attitude and no work ethic. Who is leading who here? Aren’t we, as leaders, responsible for setting the tone of the team, creating the environment in which we work and showing (not just telling) our people how to perform? YES, WE ARE! (If you answered incorrectly, poke yourself in the eye.)

Remember this: Never expect from someone else what you aren’t willing to show or share first. Don’t you dare expect your people to be enthusiastic if you’re not, don’t expect them to respect each other if you don’t and don’t expect them to be high performers if you’re not already working on it every day. It is a quick recipe for disaster, setting your people up for frustration and setting us up for failure as leaders. As leaders, we are constantly transmitting information to those we lead about how we feel about the job, other people, our attitude, values, work ethic and so much more. Take advantage of that dynamic and transmit, on purpose, what you want to see reflected back from your people. I had an elder tell me many years ago before my wife and I had our girls: “Your kids may not listen to a word you say … but they’ll watch everything you do.”

Lead by example in all you do and say and your leadership model will be in alignment. You will lead your people well — and they will follow. ❂


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