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Iryna Viter

How to Lead by Example: The Ripple Effect of Your Actions

Learn how to lead by example with these practical tips. Discover how to inspire your team, build trust, and create a positive work culture.

Becoming a leader, you always learn one simple truth sooner or later - actions speak louder than words. You can preach all day about the importance of hard work, dedication, and integrity, but if you're not ready to practice it, your words are unavailing. This is where leading by example comes in - it's the ultimate way to show your team that you're not just spewing hot air.

As a leader, you need to accept that your actions will inspire others - positively or negatively - and that your every move will come under scrutiny. As Kim Scott famously wrote in Radical Candor, ‘In some ways, becoming a boss is like getting arrested. Everything you say or do can and will be used against you.’

By setting an example with your own behavior, you demonstrate to your team that you are willing to walk the walk. In this post, we'll explore the concept of leading by example and why it is paramount for effective leadership. We'll look at real-world examples of leaders who have successfully led by example and discuss practical strategies for incorporating this leadership style into your own work. 

What is leading by example, exactly? 

Leading by example is a leadership style that involves setting an example through your own actions, behaviors, and attitudes. It means demonstrating the qualities and behaviors that you expect from your team members, and modeling the behaviors that you want to see in your workplace. In the capable hands of good leaders, it is a powerful tool that can inspire and motivate your team to achieve greatness. But it requires greatness from you, too. 

Let's think about an everyday example here. Imagine you're outside with your grandmother, and she's teaching you how to ride a bike. She could just tell you to get on the bike and start pedaling, but instead, she shows you how to balance on the bike, how to pedal, and how to use the brakes. She holds the back of the bike and runs alongside you, encouraging you and cheering you on as you wobble and struggle to stay upright. She leads by example.

She doesn't just tell you what to do; she demonstrates it with her own actions. And as she leads by example, you start to gain confidence and belief that you can do it too. You see her pedaling alongside you, and you think to yourself, "If she can do it, so can I." Before long, you're pedaling on your own, with your grandmother still running alongside you, cheering you on. She's shown you how it's done, and now it's your turn to shine.

In the same way, team leaders who lead by example don't just tell their team members what to do; they demonstrate how to do it through their own actions, being the first to blaze the trail.

Like parents, team leaders need to model the behavior they want to see from their charges. You can’t expect your team to display certain characteristics if you don’t embody them yourself. For example, if you want your team to communicate constructively or stay calm under pressure, they need to see you behave in that way. 

The benefits of leading by example the right way 

Leadership is not just about giving orders and delegating tasks. It's about setting a positive tone and inspiring others to follow in your footsteps. Whether you're a CEO, manager, or team leader, your actions have a ripple effect that can impact your team's morale, productivity, and success.

  • Builds trust and respect. 🙏 By demonstrating your commitment to your team's goals and values, you can build trust and respect, as your team members see that you're not just telling them what to do, but also doing it yourself. When your team trusts and respects you, they're more likely to be motivated and engaged, which can lead to better performance and results.
  • Sets the bar. 🤸 Leading by example sets the standard for how you want your team to behave and perform. If you expect your employees to work hard and be productive, you must demonstrate those behaviors yourself. If you want your team to be ethical and honest, you must lead by example and show them that you value those qualities. If your team sees you modeling the behavior you expect from them, they're more likely to follow suit.
  • Inspires others. 💡 When you lead by example, you inspire your team members to do their best work. Your actions can motivate and energize your team, leading to increased creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. When your employee sees you taking on challenges and pushing yourself to do better, they'll be more likely to do the same.
  • Creates a positive work environment. 😄 Want to create a positive work environment that's conducive to productivity and collaboration? When your team sees you treating others with respect and kindness, they're more likely to do the same. When you demonstrate a positive attitude and a willingness to help others, you contribute to a company culture of teamwork and support. Thus, you can create a work environment that people enjoy being a part of, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and employee retention.
  • Encourages accountability. 🙋 Leading by example encourages accountability and responsibility. When your team sees you taking ownership of your actions and holding yourself accountable, they're more likely to do the same. When you demonstrate a willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them, you create continuous improvement is the result. 

If you've read to this point, you have a good understanding of what goes into leading by example. Here are three steps you can take to practice leading by example further. 

How to practice leading by example

1. Most of us aren’t trained to be leaders - ask for coaching to develop the skills you need 

Leadership is not something that comes naturally to everyone. Most of us aren't born with the innate ability to lead others. Even those who are born with it still need to hone and develop their skills to become truly effective leaders.

We’re not taught how to be professional in school either. Junior colleagues - or those who haven’t experienced healthy team dynamics before - may have no experience of positive workplace behavior. So how can we expect them to exhibit it?

That's why it's important to seek out coaching and training to help you develop the skills you need to become a great leader. Whether you're a new manager or a seasoned executive, there's always room for improvement and growth.

In fact, the impact of coaching is profound, with a whopping 80% of people who have received coaching reporting a significant boost in their self-confidence, according to the Institute of Coaching. Moreover, over 70% of those who have undergone coaching have experienced a remarkable improvement in their work performance, relationships, and communication skills.

Some of the skills that you may need to develop as a leader include effective communication, problem-solving, decision-making, delegation, and conflict resolution. Coaching can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in these areas, and provide you with the tools and strategies you need to improve.

Another benefit of seeking coaching is that it can help you gain new perspectives and ideas. Often, we get so caught up in our own ways of thinking and doing things that we become oblivious to other possibilities. Coaching can help you step outside of your own perspective and see things from a new angle, which can be incredibly valuable in developing your leadership skills.

2. Find great leaders in your organization and emulate them - even ask them to be your mentor

When it comes to leading by example, finding great leaders in your organization and emulating their behaviors and approaches can be incredibly powerful. Not only can you learn from their successes and mistakes, but you can also develop your own authentic leadership style that reflects your values and goals.

When it comes to emulating great leaders in your organization, research shows that mentorship can be a powerful tool. According to a study, 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentorship programs to their employees. Moreover, employees who have a mentor are promoted five times more often than those who do not have one.

To begin with, identify the leaders in your organization who you respect and admire. Look for people who have achieved success in your field, who have excellent leadership skills, or who have a leadership style that aligns with your own values and goals.

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Once you've identified these potential mentors, don't be afraid to reach out to them and ask if they'd be willing to mentor you. Many great leaders are happy to share their knowledge and experience with others and may be flattered that you see them as a role model. You'll be surprised how many people are willing to be a mentor to someone who seeks their guidance. Furthermore, mentorship is not just beneficial for the mentee. Mentors report that they have learned new skills and improved their leadership capabilities through the process.

It's important to remember that while it's valuable to learn from other great leaders, it's equally important to develop your own authentic leadership style. As you learn from others, look for ways to incorporate their approaches into your own unique style, rather than simply copying them. This will help you become a truly effective and successful leader in your own right.

In fact, you can solidify the behavior you expect is through a written code of conduct, according to Cath Garcia, Head of HR at SkillSuccess.  

‘It helps to have an agreed-upon code of conduct that all team members agree to abide by. For example, respect for others’ opinions; listening before offering advice; no gossiping about colleagues or clients; seeking clarification if needed. This will help foster an environment where everyone feels included and respected—allowing the team to work together in a productive manner without judgment or criticism from any one group member.’

Ultimately, to lead by example, you need to be the best possible leader you can be, and learning from others is an important part of that process. By finding great leaders in your organization and emulating their behaviors and approaches, you can develop the skills and knowledge you need to become a truly exceptional leader.

3. Think about what behaviors really matter to move the needle and consciously embody them

This means focusing on the actions and behaviors that will have the greatest impact on your team and organization, and making a deliberate effort to incorporate them into your own leadership style.

Take some time to reflect on the key behaviors that are most important to your team and organization. This could include things like clear communication, a strong work ethic, a focus on results, a positive attitude, or a commitment to continuous improvement.

Once you've identified these key behaviors, make a conscious effort to embody them in your own actions and interactions with your team. This means modeling the behavior you want to see from your team, consistently and intentionally.

For example, if clear communication is a key behavior that you want to embody, make sure that you are always communicating clearly and effectively with your team. This might mean being proactive about sharing information, actively listening to others, and providing regular feedback and guidance.

Similarly, if a strong work ethic is important to you, make sure that you are always setting a good example by showing up on time, working hard, and going above and beyond to achieve your goals. By embodying these behaviors, you can set the tone for your team and inspire them to do their best work.

It's also important to recognize that leading by example is an ongoing process. You won't always get it right, and there will be times when you fall short of your own expectations. But by being aware of the behaviors that matter most and making a conscious effort to embody them, you can continually improve and become a more effective leader over time.

4. Believe in your team no matter what

One final tip for leading by example is to be a tireless champion for your team. After all, if you don’t believe in them, who will? Whenever you talk about your team - in front of them or behind closed doors - be positive about their achievements, potential, and individual members. Alex Armstrong-Paling, Managing Director of Toolfit, says:

‘Ensure that your behavior aligns with the culture your team will adopt. Continuously set an example of how much you value your team and the culture you've encouraged them to join. It indicates your team's ability to complete the duties you provide them, which typically promotes the formation of strong relationships and a rise in trust.’

Your team’s culture will become a reflection of your strengths. Your enthusiasm and positivity can inspire your team’s energy, your communication style can support positive collaboration, and your respect for others can foster a team culture where everyone feels valued and safe to be vulnerable. As Rowan Savage, Co-founder and CTO at Runn explains:

‘Leading by example for me is a lot about showing humility and asking for help. One thing I've always noticed - even at Runn and in other work environments - is that especially our junior staff can struggle to ask for help because they feel like ‘Oh, I should know this already. I should already understand this. What am I doing wrong?’ So I am always out there asking for people to help me with anything that I'm stuck on. I go out and I openly ask ‘Hey, can someone help me? I'm stuck here.’ And that's part of showing, no matter who you are, getting help from your teammates, getting people around you to support you, gives you the best possible outcomes.’

Final thoughts

Modeling positive professional conduct provides an example for others to follow. You can’t expect your team to behave in a way that you do not. They’d quickly call hypocrisy and lose respect for you as a leader. And that makes it very difficult to control and correct team behavior. 

In the end, leading by example is all about being intentional and purposeful in your actions and interactions with your team. By focusing on the behaviors that really matter, and making a conscious effort to embody them, you can set the tone for your team and inspire them to achieve their best work.

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