You don’t have to look far at the moment for examples of the importance of leading by example; Scottish Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood forced to step down following the revelation that she had visited her second home whilst simultaneously asking the Scottish people NOT to do the exact same thing, or the New Zealand Health Minister demoted after driving 20km to the beach during lockdown measures. Despite these very public reminders that leaders should, most definitely, lead by example, there are those who believe it to be a somewhat outdated philosophy, more befitting of a management-type approach rather than leadership.
Leading by example is no longer just about “rolling up your sleeves” and undertaking the same everyday roles and activities of your team, but rather it’s about about exhibiting the mindset, accountability and behaviours you would expect from anybody else in the same position. Failing to lead by example has huge consequences for team cohesion and effectiveness.
5 Consequences of Failing to Lead by Example:
- Destroys Trust and Respect – Unless you want to crack out the whip and resort to an archaic dictatorial style of leadership, you need your team to trust and respect you if you want them to follow you. Acting in a way that is questionable and suggests a “one rule for you and a different one for the rest of the team” philosophy will only result in a total loss of trust and respect.
- Negatively Impacts Engagement and Productivity – If a leader fails to lead by example, the team quite simply will be less motivated and engaged. In a 2017 study done by Gallup, they estimated that the annual cost of poor management and lost productivity from employees in the U.S. who were not engaged or were actively disengaged to be between $960 billion and $1.2 trillion. If you lose the trust, respect and engagement of your team, the result is reduced profit, simple as that. For sales teams, in particular, this has a significant and immediate impact on the entire organisation.
- Destroys Accountability – However efficient you are at holding your people to account, if they’re able to respond with “well, you didn’t do it”, you’re fighting a losing battle. To hold others to account, you need credibility and, as we’ve seen with Catherine Calderwood, it doesn’t how much knowledge and experience you bring to the role, if you don’t have that credibility with your team, you are ineffective as a leader and therefore, surplus to requirements.
- Encourages Non-conformity – Not only does failing to lead by example destroy accountability as people fail to ‘toe-the-line’ but, in extreme cases it can go a step further by encouraging them to deliberately deviate from the desired direction. By way of illustration, a fairly common example of this is punctuality: where a leader consistently turns up late, it can result in team members actively choosing to do the same thing.
- Reduces Clarity Over Team Priorities – A leader who does not lead by example loses the ‘ear’ of their team; the team stop listening. The inevitable impact of this is that the team lose direction, they become unclear on strategy and direction and, consequently, team performance takes a hit.
Most of us can bring to mind a leader (whether it be at work, a public figure, or some other arena) for whom we have lost respect for. In the majority of cases, it will be because they behaved in a way that we felt was unacceptable and/or because they failed to take responsibility for their actions. We want our leaders to be people we can look up to and admire but that’s not to say they must be infallible. Leading by example doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes, for that would be an impossible ask of anyone, simply that your actions should have been carried out with good intent and that you have taken responsibility for and responded to, the consequences of those actions. Catherine Calderwood took accountability for her actions, facing a barrage of questions from journalists, but she lost her job because her initial actions did not conform to a philosophy of leading by example.
If you’re interested in finding out how to accelerate leadership performance and capability, take a look at our Leadership Coaching page, or give us a call on 01778 382733.