Leading by example: the role it plays in great leadership

a woman with yellow hair shows her team how leading by example can set others to follow

Anyone can be a leader, regardless of their role within an organization. That's because the best leaders lead by example. Their actions, rather than their position of power, motivate others.

Michelle Obama, a woman with inspiring leadership, shares that "leadership is not limited to age or status in life1." So whether you're an experienced executive, new to the workforce, or anywhere in between, you can have a positive impact in the workplace - just make sure to lead by example.

Table of contents
What does leading by example mean?
The importance of leading by example
What happens when you don’t lead by example?
How to practice leading by example
How to be a great leader people will want to follow
Leading by example can be tough sometimes (and you're bound to make mistakes)
A good example can make all the difference

What does leading by example mean?

To state it simply, someone who leads by example lets their actions—and not their words—do the talking. While they may not be a manager or hold a traditional leadership position, they emulate qualities others notice and feel compelled to model themselves. The leader typically has some level of influence (job title, personality, knowledge or subject matter expertise, seniority, etc.) within a group that inspires them to follow the person’s lead.

Leading by example, such as demonstrating and practicing good organization skills or maintaining boundaries between work and personal life, is usually a positive thing. But, poor actions by the leader can also lead others to practice less desirable habits and cause frustration in the workplace.

The importance of leading by example

Because leading by example doesn’t always mean modeling positive behavior, it’s important to keep in mind the type of example you are setting at work. Like it or not, you are always leading by example, especially if you hold a traditional leadership role in your organization.

As a leader, you are a role model for your team. Your actions may encourage others to act in the same way, so you should consider the example you set when you make decisions and act upon them.

What happens when you don’t lead by example?

As mentioned above, whether you actively realize it or not, you’re always leading by example. However, leaders who don’t think about leading by example or don’t believe they make that big of an impact may model bad behavior that other employees begin to follow. As those behaviors become more entrenched in the overall culture, managers are left with a cycle that's hard to break.

Let's break it down with a simple example. A leader continuously shows up to work 30 minutes late, which could lead other employees to think arriving at work on time isn’t a big deal. They'll see that manager consistently showing up to the office well beyond the typical start time and decide they’ll do the same since the leader is “getting away with it.” In this case, more and more employees may continue to come to work late and not value timeliness due to the example you set—and that disregard for the clock will slowly but surely become a cultural value for your organization.

Of course, the converse could also be true: If employees frequently see managers working at all hours with a total failure to balance their work and home lives, they're more likely to internalize that expectation, put forth extra effort and hours, and eventually burn themselves out. While that might provide an initial (albeit, fleeting) boost to productivity, in the long run, it sabotages employee engagement, morale, and even retention and loyalty.

In addition, when people don’t lead by example, they may say one thing and then do something that contradicts the earlier statement. This lack of integrity and follow-through can also be a problem, as matching words or promises with actions is the very foundation of being a good leader. If someone doesn’t practice what they preach, other employees may become annoyed or frustrated. For example, if a manager says everyone needs to work overtime on Saturday to complete a big project but doesn’t show up themselves, that is bound to make most employees feel angry (not to mention taken advantage of). It also could lower the respect and trust employees have for their managers and break down the working relationship.

Both of these situations show why it’s good for managers and other employees to self-reflect on their actions and determine if those actions are the example they want to demonstrate to others. Otherwise, you could develop a negative reputation within your company—and potentially even cause harm on an organizational level. After all, behaviors tend to spread like wildfire through teams and organizations.

How to practice leading by example

Leadership comes in many forms. Sometimes it's the more "textbook" definition of leadership that occurs in a more traditional role, such as a boss or a company executive. However, leadership can also be found in roles on extracurricular teams, such as the volunteer chair or a school board member. Or, leadership can be the example you set as a peer and a team member without an official title. Basically, anyone can be a leader as long as they have some influence over a group of people (and, you likely already have more influence than you think).

So, regardless of whether you have the formal spot on the org chart or not, modeling positive and healthy behaviors is crucial. Here are a few ways you can lead by example:

  • As a company leader, when your team works late or comes in on weekends so do you. You pitch in to elevate team morale and help get projects done
  • As a company leader, you uphold business core values by attending diversity and inclusion training. You encourage your employees to do the same
  • As a team member, you stick to deadlines and consistently submit quality work on time and on budget
  • As a team member, you make learning and development a priority and even host team development workshops
  • As the volunteer chair of a local organization, you sign up to work the less-desirable volunteer dates on the weekends so there are enough volunteers

In all of these leading examples, true leadership is demonstrated by stepping up to the plate for tasks or doing the work that you’d expect of anyone else on the team. Whether you’re an official leader of a group or not, your attitude and actions can set you apart as a leader by not being afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.  

If you want to develop your leadership skills, we have resources that can help. The F4S workplace assessment is based on more than two decades of motivational research. When you take the free assessment you’ll receive a free report on your top work style motivations and any blindspots that may impact leadership success. Then you can set a goal with AI Coach Marlee and receive personalized coaching to improve your leadership skills.

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You can get started with a coaching program like Multiply Your Impact to learn how to tap into your personal influence. Whether you’re leading in a manager position or as an individual contributor, F4S can improve your approach to leadership.

How to be a great leader people will want to follow

Since you’re always leading by example (both when you realize it and when you don't), it’s better to put your best foot forward and set an admirable example to contribute to a more positive work environment. Here are a few ways you become the type of leader—regardless of your rank or position—that people will want to follow.

1. Match your behavior to your core values

If you are someone who has integrity, you’ll be a successful leader because you follow your values, even when it’s tough. You strive to do the right thing and are honest when you fall short of living your values.

Saying you believe in work-life balance or honesty is great, but if your actions contradict this by working late or telling white lies all the time, it doesn’t do you any good. Not only will your team members and subordinates respect you more if your behavior aligns with your values, but you’ll also avoid contributing to a culture of double standards.

Acting according to your values will set the right example for people to follow and will encourage those who may not have followed your lead before to take note of the example you set.

2. Practice empathy

The ability to connect with others is a leadership skill that can help you be a better leader, whether you manage people or not. By having empathy for others, you can build stronger relationships with your colleagues, which can create a more respectful company culture.

Leading with empathy can also promote an environment where employees are comfortable speaking up about difficult topics that are important to address, such as workplace harassment or unethical behavior.

Empathy is also contagious, meaning that the more employees show empathy to each other, the more comfortable people will feel being vulnerable and caring for others at work. Michelle Duval, F4S founder and researcher, shares her own vulnerabilities in the video below. She also discusses why leaders should be vulnerable and the difference between being vulnerable and over-sharing.

3. Have a strong work ethic

If you lead a team but have a terrible work ethic, your team will likely follow your example and not value their work and contributions at all. Poor work ethic is a sign of a not-so-great leader and will be an indication that you’re not ready to be given more responsibility.

To demonstrate a strong work ethic, make sure to take pride in your work, be willing to go the extra mile, and be a team player that people want to work with. If you set the example of doing a quality job, the work environment will be more productive and other employees may follow suit, especially if they report to you. Plus, you'll stand out to senior leaders.

4. Have clear and reasonable expectations (for yourself and others)

You will only be an effective leader if you have reasonable expectations of yourself and others. For some people who tend to be perfectionists or have anxiety, this can be a harder lesson to learn, especially when it comes to themselves. However, giving yourself grace and maintaining boundaries can help with your mental health and actually make you more productive and relaxed at work.

The same goes for your expectations of other people. If you’ve ever had a boss where you felt like you couldn’t do anything right, you know the frustration that can create. Having high expectations of your employees is okay, but make sure the expectations are attainable. Plus, everyone makes mistakes (yourself included). Give your team the space to make those mistakes and learn from them.

5. Place trust in your team

A good leader knows their team is the backbone of any success and trusts their team’s abilities to do the work. If you don’t trust your employees or coworkers, this can create hard feelings and an uncomfortable work environment. It also could lead your employees to distrust each other, making collaboration even harder.

By showing trust in your team or coworkers, you help promote a culture of confidence and teamwork.

6. Show mutual respect to all your colleagues

Respect for others is critical in leadership and shouldn’t be limited to your superiors or people who can do you favors. Everyone brings different skills and perspectives, and this diversity can bring new ideas to the table and ultimately make an organization better.

Recognize the unique value everyone brings to the team, and be sure to treat everyone equally and with kindness. Treating others with blatant favoritism or disregard makes it difficult for employees to respect you as a leader and, even worse, can create a toxic workplace.

7. Show a willingness to learn and improve

If you don’t show an interest in learning or doing better for yourself or your team, how can you expect others to want to improve? A great leader keeps an open mind and is willing to hear constructive feedback and take those pointers into consideration to improve moving forward.

If someone corrects you or provides feedback on your work, thank them for the note and ask any clarifying questions that will help you understand what next steps you should take. Your employees, coworkers, and superiors will appreciate your humility and eagerness to learn. This promotes a mindset of continuous improvement within your team and will encourage others to look into innovative solutions or pursue additional training.

Leading by example can be tough sometimes (and you're bound to make mistakes)

There’s no doubt that knowing that you’re leading by example can be a lot of pressure to deal with. That being said, it’s important to recognize that we all make mistakes from time to time. A true leader will know they’re going to slip up occasionally, and when one of those blunders comes along, they’ll own up to it and try to make it right.

Keep in mind that the example you set when things go wrong is just as important—if not more important—as the example you demonstrate when things are going well. Other people will notice how you act in these moments and be impressed if you pick yourself up, follow your values, and act with integrity.

A good example can make all the difference

Good leaders know they’re setting an example for their team and they use that opportunity and influence to set a standard of excellence they want their employees to follow. By promoting strong values, high yet reasonable expectations, and empathy, your company culture will strengthen and your employees will find greater success.

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