How to Lead by Example: Show, Don’t Tell

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to lead by example? What’s the best way to exemplify what your organization values and stands for?

Leading by example is the best way to communicate what’s truly important to your organization—its values. By nature, values are elusive, so explicitly stating them will never be the most effective way to instil them. Moreover, it’s easy to say you believe in certain values, but harder to follow through and live them, so when others see you doing just that—practicing what you preach—you gain credibility, and people will more enthusiastically follow your lead.

Keep reading to learn how to lead by example.

Leading by Example: Practice What You Preach

What does it mean to lead by example? Leading by example means two things: 1) living your values, and 2) showing others how to live up to them. We’ll discuss both of these concepts below.

1. Live the Shared Values of Your Organization

As a leader, you’re the face of your organization to the public, and this means you represent its shared values. Other people associate you with your organization and will judge it by the actions you take. 

You’re also the face of your organization to your constituents (employees, volunteers, or other members). As such, you set the tone for your organization and how it—and everyone within it—will operate. Research shows that direct reports mimic the behavior of their leader. Leaders who are visible to their direct reports and who demonstrate positive attitudes, work conscientiously toward their goals, and make constructive changes when needed are likely to have direct reports who do the same.

You broadcast your values in many ways, some of which are:

  • Where you devote your time and attention
  • How you use words and phrases
  • How you pose questions
  • Your openness to feedback and how you handle criticism

Your Time and Attention

People will judge your sincerity by what you pay attention to, and whether it matches what you say you value. People will respect a leader who lives by the principle of, “don’t ask others to do what you yourself aren’t willing to do.”

Schedule your calendar and structure your agenda to match your stated values. For example:

  • If you say you value your clients, patients, students, and so on, make yourself available to them.
  • If you say you value sales performance, attend sales meetings.
  • If you say you value innovation, visit your labs and meet with your researchers.

An example of a leader exemplifying these principles was a senior client engagement manager at Accenture, whose team ran into trouble on a project and needed to spend New Year’s Eve and Day working in order to complete it. The manager canceled his own vacation plans to join them. His presence sent a strong message to both his team members and the client that he was committed to getting the project completed. Consequently, his team’s levels of morale and engagement soared. 

How You Use Words and Phrases

Your language reflects your values, showing how you think about roles and relationships. Words provide a framework for how you see the world and what you want others to focus on. Therefore, ensure your language uplifts, motivates, and empowers your team members, rather than makes them feel restricted and disempowered.

When speaking about the roles and positions of you and your team members, avoid words and phrases that focus on hierarchy, and instead use words that focus on relationships. For example:

  • Words like boss, employee, top-down, supervisor, rank-and-file, and subordinate frame your work around hierarchy.
  • In contrast, words like associates, colleagues, team members, partners, and constituents frame your work around collaboration. 

Additionally, when speaking of goals and strategy, use words that invoke ideals that go beyond mere functionality. While terms like efficiency, differentiation, and superiority are often accurate descriptions of objectives, they don’t rouse the spirit in the same way words like honor, justice, and truth do. 

How You Pose Questions

Your language conveys your priorities. When you ask questions, you indicate what you’re concerned about and direct attention to a specific aspect of the issue. Therefore, ask purposeful questions designed to inform, guide, and emphasize your values.

For example, if you ask someone, “What do you need that we can provide so you can finish the project?” you’re emphasizing collaboration and support. In contrast, if you ask, “Why haven’t you finished the project?” you’re emphasizing personal accountability and implying blame. With this question, you’ll likely prompt a feeling of defensiveness, and the other person will probably feel the need to give excuses rather than to reflect constructively on solutions.  

When you ask purposeful, well-framed questions, you can:

  • Show that you’re genuinely interested in others’ points of view
  • Encourage participation in decision-making, which increases support for whatever decision is ultimately made
  • Encourage people to fully understand their own positions by exploring the reasons behind them
  • Help people get a broader understanding of the circumstances
  • Clarify and emphasize your shared values

You can also use questions to find ways to improve your business or organizational purpose. Ask your constituents for input, and follow up with additional questions. Never criticize suggestions, but instead, ask for clarification. Use questions to reframe viewpoints and inspire new ideas—for example, get your team members to see your business from your customers’ point of view by asking how the customer might feel using your products. 

Your Openness to Feedback

You broadcast how you feel about others’ opinions with whether or not you’re open to feedback. 

You can’t truly evaluate your own job performance without knowing what others think about you—and to find out, you have to ask them. So to grow in your leadership role, regularly seek feedback.

It’s hard to receive feedback; no one likes to be criticized. Though everyone wants to improve themselves, they also want to feel accepted just as they are. Feedback speaks to both of these basic human desires, and therefore it comes with an inherent tension. Because of this, many people, leaders included, react to feedback negatively, and don’t often seek it out. 

Leaders also resist feedback because they fear it will expose their flaws, convince their constituents they aren’t up to their task of leadership, and thus make them less successful. However, research shows that leaders who are open to feedback are far more likely to be successful. 

2. Show Others How to Live the Shared Values

When you model your values, you show others how to live the shared values of your organization. This is crucial because leading by example is not just about personally representing the values of your organization, but also ensuring that your constituents represent them as well—your constituents are the face of your organization to the public just as you are, and the public will judge your organization’s values based on how they observe your team members acting. 

In addition, your own team members will watch what you expect of their peers—or what you let slide. If they see that you consistently hold other team members up to your stated values, they’ll feel more committed to them. If they see you accepting behavior that you have verbally discouraged, they won’t judge your commitment to your values as sincere.

There are many ways you can guide and coach your team to live your shared values. Some specific ways are: 

  • Face unplanned complications.
  • Tell stories.
  • Use systems and processes.

Face Unplanned Incidents

You can effectively demonstrate how your values can be put into action when unplanned emergencies arise. Unplanned problems are an opportunity to focus your team members on what’s critical and to show them how your values can create solutions. 

For example, if a colleague has to take a leave of absence during an important phase of a project in which she plays an integral part, you can demonstrate how your stated values of, say, teamwork and flexibility can help the project stick to its timeline if you step in to help manage it. 

Tell Stories

Another way to demonstrate how your values can be put into action is to tell a story. Stories teach people how the world works—what to do, what to avoid, what’s important, and what’s possible—and the human brain has evolved to pay close attention to them. Your team members will better understand the rules if they hear a story about them—what happened when someone broke them or how someone was rewarded for following them—than they will if they just read a list of rules. 

Use stories to support major changes in policy or strategy, as people will understand more clearly the reasons behind the changes and what the changes are aiming for. If possible, include people in your stories that your listeners will recognize: People love to hear stories about themselves or people they know, so if you can illustrate a point with a story filled with familiar elements, you’ll grab your listeners’ attention. 

Use Systems and Processes

As a leader, ensure that your team can follow your values even when you’re not physically present. This will allow your team members to take initiative without needing to follow your lead. To do this, establish clear and practical procedures that stand in for your decision-making when you’re not around. These might include:

  • Key performance measures: Encourage departments to share information to encourage collaboration over competition.
  • Reward systems: Dispense benefits, perks, and promotions according to when team members live your values.
  • Recruitment: Make clear what you stand for when you seek new members, so that potential team members both understand your values and take themselves out of the running if they don’t agree with those values.
  • Training: Emphasize your values in your onboarding materials.

Case Study: Steve Skarke at Kaneka Texas Corporation

Steve Skarke of Kaneka Texas Corporation demonstrated how to effectively model his values. When Steve stepped into the role of plant manager at the company, he had a vision for the company, shared by management, of becoming a “World Class Plant.” However, he noticed immediately that the physical condition of the plant grounds didn’t hold up this value; the plant was untidy. In fact, whenever a customer was scheduled to visit, Steve had to assign people to clean up trash around the plant, parking lot, and surrounding roads.

To model the values he wanted his team to adopt, Steve picked up a large plastic bucket, labeled it “World Class Plant,” and walked around picking up trash. He took his trash bucket with him wherever he went around the plant. Soon, other managers and workers started carrying buckets too. 

Further, now that everyone’s attention was on the trash problem, they began talking about how to address the issue over the longer term. They added trash cans and came up with ways to organize their workspaces better. The company even expanded the program, delegating responsibility for the maintenance of certain pieces of machinery to the floor operators.

Because of Steve’s decision to personally live up to the values he wanted others to live up to, he created a culture based on those values. 

How to Lead by Example: Show, Don’t Tell

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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