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Leading By Example? How Odd!

Leading by example is odd because it doesn’t fit standard leadership models. But analyzing how it works can radically alter our thinking about leadership.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that prevailing theories or paradigms often have anomalies: facts they can’t explain. Leading by example is just such an anomaly for conventional leadership theory.

Kuhn also said that a new paradigm wins the day by explaining anomalies along with everything else accounted for by the entrenched theory.

The bottom line is that conventional leadership theory (being in charge of people) is not only not the central paradigm, it is only a special case, one particular context in which leadership is shown.

Leading by example is a one-off act, not a role in a hierarchy. The only way to account for it is to say that ALL leadership consists in discrete acts of influence. But this means giving up the idea that leadership, by definition, entails being a person in charge of a group.

Most importantly, all employees can lead by example, even those without the motivation or talent to be positional leaders. Whenever they excel in their jobs and others follow their example they show leadership.

What is Leading by Example?

CEOs can also lead by example when they, for instance, communicate more openly than others or act with humility. Such actions may be unrelated to the organizational vision but, more importantly, they show leadership without articulating a vision.

That is, leading by example is odd precisely because it is NOT shown via the verbal communication of a vision. A vision overtly promotes the destination of a journey while leading by example simply demonstrates a better way of working. So much for the widespread belief that vision is essential for leadership.

Kouzes and Posner, among others, use the metaphor of a journey to explain leadership. When a vision (the journey’s destination) is promoted, the aim is to convince prospective followers to help the CEO undertake a journey.

This is like a ship’s captain recruiting a crew to transport a valuable cargo through pirate-infested waters, which is why the vision needs to be compelling. But the key point is that the captain can’t take the journey alone; a crew is needed to get the ship to the destination.

With leading by example, however, the leader goes to the destination alone ahead of followers. In addition, leading by example hardly entails a journey because followers can implement the proposed change immediately just by emulating the leader’s actions. By contrast, a vision implies a large-scale undertaking that needs to be planned, organized and coordinated.

Moreover, leading by example is actually closer to the literal meaning of leading because the leader goes first and others follow. But the CEO, like the ship’s captain, doesn’t literally lead the way because the ship can’t move without the crew.

Kouzes and Posner, among other writers on leadership, don’t stop at stressing the importance of vision. Leaders, they claim, also help followers get to the destination by supporting and encouraging them.

But leading by example leaves followers to get to the destination on their own. No doubt some won’t follow the CEO’s example without support. But this is beside the point. If ANY employees do follow the CEO’s lead, then leading by example without support does occur; hence support can’t be essential to the meaning of leadership.

How Leading by Example Works

Where leading means being in charge of others, the leader can take people in new directions by making decisions for them, hence why we have the concept of autocratic leadership. This is an anomaly in itself because leadership is commonly portrayed as an influence process. But if this were strictly true then autocratic leadership would be an oxymoron because deciding for people does not amount to influencing them.

By contrast, leading by example can ONLY work through influence. It shows the way for others. Leadership occurs when people freely follow.

Promoting a vision is always a deliberate attempt to lead people, but leading by example can be unintentional. Recall the old cliché “actions speak louder than words” which shows that people prefer to follow what others do rather than what they advocate. Thus leading by example looms rather larger than conventional leadership theory suggests.

For instance, when a newly hired customer service associate brings strong customer service skills from a previous employer and new colleagues copy the new approach, this is leading by example on a one-off, unintentional basis.

This shows that leadership is really in the eyes of the beholder and that, to lead, it is critical to focus on what it takes to influence a particular audience. Conventional leadership theory puts the cart before the horse by focusing on what sort of person it takes to be a leader.

Broadly speaking, there are two influencing styles: example and advocating a better way. The latter can be as grand as a vision or as simple as quietly pointing out the factual realities in a situation (See Vision and Leadership). A new direction can be promoted in an emotionally compelling manner or through a hard-hitting argument. The ways in which a new direction can be promoted are infinitely varied, but they all come down to the same thing: showing the way for others by influencing them to adopt a better way.

Conventional leadership is often portrayed as a collaborative effort between leaders and followers, a two-way influence process where the actions of followers can influence the leader as much as vice versa.

But leading by example is a one-way influence process; it can occur at a distance and across organizational boundaries. When a green leader moves people half way around the world to act differently, there need not be any two-way communication involved, proving that collaborative working can’t be essential to the meaning of leadership.

Someone who leads by example is often called a role model, which generally implies a primarily one-way influence relationship.

Another odd fact about leading by example is that it is not restricted to individuals. Not only is it unnecessary to be in charge of the people who are led, it isn’t even necessary to be a person. Groups can lead by example too. Countries with green policies might lead other countries to emulate their practices.

Companies competing in a market, such as Apple, lead their competitors by example. Not only do competing companies not support and encourage their followers, they actively discourage them through secrecy and patents.

Clearly, when totally distinct groups lead each other by example, they do not occupy a role in an organizational hierarchy. The leading group is an outsider to the follower group. Thus their leadership can only be shown as discrete acts or impacts.

Promoting a vision and leading by example do have something in common, however: they are discrete acts or, strictly speaking, impacts on followers. Thus we can say that vision and example are influencing styles and we can define leadership as: showing the way for others. It is shown by influencing people to move in a new direction.

Vision and leading by example both sell the tickets for a journey. Both ways of leading could leave it up to followers to get to the destination on their own. For instance, a green leader’s vision articulated in Norway could be implemented in Malaysia without the leader’s involvement. It is only when we view leadership as being in charge of a group that we are tempted to include implementation support in our account of leadership.

In summary, here are the ways in which leading by example is an awkward fact for theories of leadership that entail being in charge of a group:

  • Leading by example is not shown through the articulation of a vision.
  • It does not entail a journey; an example can be copied immediately.
  • It is a discrete, one-off act, not an ongoing role.
  • It relies on influence alone; it can’t make decisions for followers.
  • The leader goes first, literally leading the way.
  • It merely sells the tickets for a journey.
  • It leaves followers to get to the destination on their own.
  • There is no explicit direction, support or implementation assistance.
  • Groups as well as individuals can lead by example.
  • It can be shown by outsiders, including competitors.
  • It is a one-way impact, not a collaborative effort.
  • It has nothing to do with taking charge of followers.
  • It doesn’t entail managing people or getting work done through them.
  • It can be unintentional rather than deliberate.

The anomaly of leading by example presents us with two options: (1) there are two kinds of leadership or (2) all leadership merely sells the tickets for a journey. Choosing the second option means that we need to upgrade management to take care of implementation.

Leadership Reinvented

The fact that groups can lead other groups by example shows decisively that leading cannot entail being a person in charge of those who are led, further that the leading group can be a total outsider to the follower group.

This may sound odd but leadership is frequently shown as discrete acts by outsiders: 

  • Jack Welch’s mantra of being number one or two in a market had a leadership impact on companies all over the world.
  • Martin Luther King’s demonstrations against segregation on buses had a leadership impact on the general public and the U.S. Supreme Court when the latter outlawed such discrimination.
  • Green leaders promoting environmentally sound policies could show leadership to communities all across the globe.
  • Apple shows leadership to competitors in music sales, cell phones and computing.
  • A front line innovator shows leadership bottom-up by advocating a new product as an outsider to the senior management team.

Because such leadership merely sells the tickets for a journey, it has nothing to do with getting things done through people. This is the job of management, suitably upgraded as a positive, supportive, facilitative function.

The main advantage of restricting leadership to selling the tickets for a journey is that it explains how leadership can be shown bottom-up by employees who have neither the talent nor the inclination to be positional leaders. This is very empowering and engaging. Calling innovative knowledge workers leaders has great potential to better engage them.

Being in Charge of People

We are fond of calling those in charge of us leaders. We romanticize leadership and seem to have a deep need to be looked after by substitute parent figures. Even if we can’t relinquish this need, we could use another label for such role occupants.

We could call them executives, chiefs, captains, managers, premiers or presidents among other names. But we risk losing the full benefits of leadership by allowing them to call themselves leaders simply by virtue of their role. Strictly speaking there are no leaders at all, just ACTS of leadership. (See No Leaders, No Managers.)

In a rapidly changing, complex world where innovation is the key to winning, business becomes a war of ideas. New ideas are the new power source for leadership but, unlike charisma or personal presence, no one person can use ideas to dominate a group.

Leadership reinvented is a free-floating, ephemeral phenomenon that rapidly shifts from one person to another. It is an act that all employees can show on a small scale, local basis even if they aren’t sufficiently visionary or charismatic to move whole organizations, countries or communities.

In conclusion, a careful look at leading by example breaks the stranglehold of positional leadership theory. All employees can lead by example simply by doing their jobs to the best of their abilities without taking charge of anyone. Actively promoting a better way also shows leadership in a similar one-off manner.

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