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10 Ways You Can Lead By Example in The Workplace

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Good leaders are rare. Gallup Poll researchers1 found that only about 10% of people possess the qualities and traits necessary to be a good manager.

One of the best ways to lead is to lead by example. 

In this post, we’ll go over what leading by example means and 11 actionable tips on how to do so.

What Does it Mean to Lead by Example?

To lead by example is to inspire your team towards engaged and practical work based on how you act, not on what you preach. When you lead by example, you become a walking embodiment of the ideal values of your company.

It is a powerful style of leadership that makes you, the leader, accountable for showing up how you want others to. It also empowers you to grow because if you want a specific quality from your team members, you must cultivate it within yourself.

10 Tips on How to Lead By Example to Inspire Your Team

As a workplace leader, you have four primary goals:

  1. Create a workplace culture you believe in
  2. Create a vision of a better future that your company and team are helping to create, and inspire your team members’ role in making that better future.
  3. Help your team members grow, develop, and express their gifts
  4. Make money for your company, and help your employees make money.

As we go through the following tips, each action step will give you an idea of how to lead by example to foster these leadership goals.

1. Always give credit and acknowledgment

Research2 has shown when employees receive acknowledgment for their work, they feel more motivated and willing to work harder, even for less pay.

Acknowledgment is one of the top commodities in the workplace. It’s what we all crave and what makes us feel valued. 

When you give your employees credit, acknowledgment, and appreciation, you inspire this attitude in them. It can create a company culture where everyone actively appreciates each other, which motivates everyone to work passionately. This is especially powerful if you aspire to build a strengths-based team.

But when you don’t give acknowledgment, it leads to turnover. According to this survey3 of people planning to switch jobs, 69% said that more recognition and rewards would motivate them to stay with their current employer.

You don’t want to build a team where your team members constantly feel like this lady:

However, it’s important to recognize that everyone likes to receive acknowledgment differently. Some people want you to remember them in a team meeting or a group email. Others prefer acknowledgment in a private 1-on-1 setting. Some folks enjoy physical rewards like gift cards for their hard work.

The only way to know how an employee likes to receive recognition is to ask them.

Action Step: In an upcoming 1-on-1 with each of your team members, ask them: “How do you like to be acknowledged for your work?” If they are drawing blanks, here are a few options you can give them to choose from:

  • Public recognition: Acknowledging their contributions in team meetings, group emails, or company-wide gatherings. 
  • Personalized feedback: A personalized note, email, or one-on-one conversation showing appreciation for a specific achievement.
  • Career development opportunities: Showing recognition by investing in their growth. This could be offering opportunities for professional development, such as training or workshops, or providing them with new responsibilities or roles that align with their career goals.
  • Rewards: Tangible rewards such as bonuses, gift cards, extra time off, or other perks.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition: Creating spaces and systems where coworkers can acknowledge each other’s accomplishments.

If you’d like to learn more about influencing others positively, you might enjoy this free goodie.

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2. Do the right thing when no one is watching

This bullet point is a biggie if you’d like a sense of ethics to be part of your company code.

If you don’t focus on your ethics, it can create a lack of trust in the environment where nobody feels relatively safe.

No explicit, universal ethical code proves with certainty what is right or wrong in any given situation. However, two frameworks of thinking can inspire moral integrity in your team.

  1. Acting ethically is a choice. Even if we all have a different idea of what “right” means, you can still inspire your team to align their actions with their sense of “right” and “wrong.
  2. These researchers conducted a fascinating study that surveyed hundreds of people across 14 countries about which virtues they valued the most. The answers differed quite a lot from country to country. But the three most universal virtues were honesty, respect, and kindness. 

If you’d like to inspire a sense of ethics in your team, you must take it upon yourself to:

  1. Do what you feel is right as often as possible, and 
  2. Act with honesty, respect, and kindness.

You may have heard of virtue-signaling4 when we publicly exhibit ethical behavior to gain status5 This phenomenon can muddle our motivations when we see the opportunity to act ethically in front of others.

This is why the best way to promote ethics in your team is, paradoxically, to act ethically when none of them are around. Doing the right thing when nobody is watching cultivates an unshakeable integrity deep within yourself that then ripples out into those around you. 

Action Step: Avoid telling white lies for a set amount—a single day or a week. See if you can avoid even the tiniest, most seemingly harmless lies.

Here are a few examples to get the gears turning on just how easily white lies can creep in:

  • White lie: “Sorry I’m late; traffic was unexpectedly bad today.”
  • True statement: “Sorry I’m late. I was flustered this morning and didn’t leave when I wanted to.”
  • White lied: “That’s a great idea! We’ll implement it soon.”
  • True statement: “I appreciate your creative idea. I can’t promise we’ll implement it, but I’ll explore its feasibility and get back to you if we can move it forward.”
  • White lie: “I completely agree with you.” 
  • True statement: “I see where you’re coming from, but I have a different perspective. Can we explore both our viewpoints?”
  • White lie: “You’re next in line for a promotion.” 
  • True statement: “Your hard work is noticed. There is a set promotion plan I can’t speed you through, but when your time comes, you’ll have made a strong case for advancement.” 1. 

3. Clarify your team’s values

The premise of leading by example rests on the assumption that your team will organically soak up how you act, speak, and think.

It’s an excellent first step to clarify precisely what you want them to soak up. The best way to do that is to clarify what values you want to instill in your team.

Action Steps:

  • First, brainstorm a list of admirable values for your team. Try to get at least 25 on this list. If you need help, here’s a list of core values to choose from
  • Then, narrow your list down to your top ten
  • Then, narrow it down to your top five
  • Then, please write a short sentence about each value, describing what it means to you.
  • Lastly, order your list from most to least important

If you’d like a streamlined process, here’s one value-discovery method on Notion.

You now have your team’s values! 

This list of team values might overlap with the company’s values, but there will likely be some differences. They also may overlap with your values, but also not perfectly. These top values for your team are probably somewhat of a blend between your company’s values and your values.

4. Assume your team will follow your actions

If you think about your leadership from a “lead by example” perspective, it might help to assume that everything you say and do sets a precedent that the rest of your team will follow. This applies to both your “good” and “bad” habits.

For example, let’s say you tell your team member that you’ll review their work by Tuesday. But life gets in the way, and without telling them you’re behind, you get their report back to them on Friday. 

On the surface, this isn’t a big deal. What’s a few days?

But if we look deeper and from a “leading by example” perspective, we can see that you are communicating the following to your team members through your actions:

  • We are loose and imprecise with time around here
  • It’s okay to be approximate with your word. If you say you’ll do something, you can change your mind
  • It’s not a big deal to run behind schedule.

And it’s possible that you prefer to work in a looser culture and don’t mind being approximate with timing. That’s valid! But one way or the other, it’s helpful to assume that everything you do sets a precedent and that your actions communicate norms.

Action Tip: For a single day this week, carry this thought: “How would I feel if everyone on my team did the thing I just did?”

Here are two ways you can keep this thought top of mind:

  1. Take a work break every hour, and reflect for a few minutes on how you spent that last hour and your decisions. How would you feel if everyone on your team made the same decisions as you did? 
  2. For example, you spent 5 minutes on Instagram while you were meant to be working. Would you want your team to spend 5 minutes on Instagram when they mean to work? 
  3. Yes, because you want to foster a culture that embraces imperfection and fallibility. Or no, because you want to foster a culture that embraces focus and discipline. 
  4. Notice where your actions create a precedent you like and where they don’t.
  5. Change your phone background to remind you for a day. Here’s a basic illustration you can use. Or you could make your own on Canva.
An example of a motivation i-phone wallpaper background that says "I am setting a precedent with every action I take." This relates to the article which is about leading by example.

5. When stuff hits the fan, always look for where you were responsible

Psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris wrote the funny and aptly titled book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The book argues that our minds are wired to self-justify due to cognitive dissonance when we mess up, which has us avoid personal accountability.

We can overcome this tendency, but it requires intentionality to take responsibility.

The best leaders are the ones who take ownership. When the team misses a critical deadline, the leader takes responsibility for their part. If a significant snafu costs a client relationship, the leader takes responsibility for what they could have done better.

That’s not to say other employees weren’t at fault at all. But when the leader takes as much responsibility for failures as possible, it inspires a culture where the team members also look for where they can take responsibility.

In this iconic Tedx Talk, Jocko Willink explains a harrowing story where he was serving as a Navy lieutenant commander in Iraq. Through a series of miscommunications, mistakes, and bad luck, his team ended up in open fire against themselves. An ally was unnecessarily killed, and soldiers were wounded. 

When Jocko had to present what happened up the chain of command to his seniors, knowing that whoever was at fault would likely get fired, he didn’t blame any of his soldiers. He took sole responsibility as the team leader for the massive error.

Incidentally, he says that this earned an incredible amount of trust from his superiors and his team. And that through his actions, he built a culture of self-accountability. He underscores that “when a team takes ownership of its problems, the problems get solved.”

Action Step: The next time something unfortunate happens at work—whether it’s a mistake or a missed milestone—ask yourself this question:

How did I contribute to this situation?

Then, share this information with everyone relevant to the situation and pledge to learn from your mistakes.

6. Champion a value

To lead by example means you want to be the living personification of these values.

For example, if one of your team values is “Authenticity,” then you’ll want to be a beacon of authenticity to give permission and inspiration to everyone else to reveal their authentic selves. 

Action step: Pick a value you think is important and focus on it for a week. If the value you choose is transparency, for example, how can you show up as transparently as possible for just this week? 

7. Lead with the mindset you want to inspire

Your business and industry will always go through fluctuations and speedbumps, but how you relate to those situations will ripple down into your team.

You always have a choice in how you view your situation.

A team at Harvard Business Review6 writes: “The greatest predictor of success for leaders is not their charisma, influence, or power. It is not personality, attractiveness, or innovative genius. Positive relational energy is the one thing that supersedes all these factors: the energy exchanged between people that helps uplift, enthuse, and renew them.” 

One of the best ways to spread positive energy is by cultivating and sharing mindsets and perspectives that see life (and business) positively.

Say there was a malfunction in your production line. Instead of panicking and cursing, this may be a chance to rethink the product design, practice patience, or a wake-up call to switch manufacturers.

There is always an empowering way to view your situation. And the more you actively take on a growth mindset that creates opportunity, the more it will encourage your team to do the same.

Action Step: What’s one stress point in your business right now? Brainstorm five empowering ways to view the situation.

8. Never ask something difficult of your team that you wouldn’t do

Imagine you’re in a massive crunch, and so you ask a team member to put in extra time when you are unwilling to yourself. Or imagine an angry and belligerent client you are afraid of, so you assign a team member to work with them.

Doesn’t something about these situations taste sour?

As a rule of thumb, only ask your team to take on tasks that you either have yet to do yourself or that you would feel comfortable doing.

This sentiment can also apply to giving yourself too many special privileges your team doesn’t share. This could mean that, for example, you use the same coffee machine as everyone else—no special fancy espresso maker for you when everyone else must use the expired, bargain coffee beans.

Action Step: Earnestly ponder these questions: 

  • “Is there anything I’ve asked my team members to do that I wouldn’t do myself?” If the answer is “yes,” consider taking on the task yourself or removing it from the docket altogether.
  • “Have I given myself perks and privileges that I have withheld from the rest of my team?” If the answer is “yes,” then simply contemplate whether you want to continue with that imbalance (which is a valid choice).

9. Invest in their careers

As we’ve seen in this post, much of leading by example has to do with walking the walk when it’s hard to do so. It’s one thing to act generously when things are going great. But to work with virtue when times are tough is when it matters most.

One way this can play out is in your team members’ careers. A good leader will care about their team’s growth and do their best to support their actualization (this is especially true if you are a servant leader7 It might feel quite easy to do that if their career trajectory stays within the company, where their growth benefits you as well.

But what if encouraging their career growth means them leaving the company to start their venture or join another company?

In these cases, walking the walk can feel much more complicated because supporting your employees might mean losing them.

But if you want to lead by example, which means acting with true care and kindness towards your team, it means supporting their growth as human beings, not just team members.

Action Step: Set up a 1-on-1 meeting with each of your team members where the goal of the meeting is to ask about and encourage their career growth. See if you can help them discover what they want for themself and how to get there. Can you coach them, offer advice, or share resources to help them?

If you’d like some extra insights on conducting a meeting like this, this post might prove helpful.

10. The way you treat someone who leaves the team shows your true colors

One common goal of leaders is to have their team members feel valued and respected. There are plenty of excellent practices to show appreciation to your team, but what communicates your respect for your team most is how you treat departing members.

When someone leaves the team, it is a chance to show your respect. It is not conditional and that you value each team member as an actual human being, not as an output machine required to reach KPIs.

Treating departing employees with respect can boost the employee morale of the rest of the team.

Action Step: The next time someone on your team leaves—either to another team within the company or leaving the company altogether—take this as an opportunity to create a culture of respect.

How can you make them feel valued and acknowledged? Maybe it’s a farewell party or having every other team member write appreciation for that person on slips of paper that you collect in a jar.

Note that you might have some problematic emotions come up. Fear, sadness, anger, or betrayal can all be a natural response to moments of big change. It’s good to process these emotions independently to orchestrate the send-off with a clear heart.

Frequently Asked Questions About Leading By Example

Why is leading by example important?

Leading by example is crucial because it inspires and motivates teams by demonstrating the behaviors and attitudes expected from them. It fosters a culture of integrity and dedication, enhancing overall team performance and productivity.

How do you use leading by example?

Leading by example involves consistently embodying the values, ethics, and work habits you wish to instill in your team. It requires honoring commitments, demonstrating ethical behavior, and respecting work-life balance.

What does “a leader leads by example, not by force” mean?

This phrase means a true leader influences and motivates their team through their actions and behaviors, not coercion or mandates. They act as role models, inspiring their team to emulate their behaviors because they respect and trust their leader’s approach.

How do you apply “lead by example” to your daily work?

Applying “lead by example” to daily work involves behaving in ways that reflect your team’s values, treating work-life balance with respect, being accountable for your actions, and supporting your team members’ career growth. Essentially, it’s about practicing what you preach. It can be helpful to continuously reflect on the mantra “I am setting a precedent with every action I take.”

What are good examples of leading by example?

An excellent example of leading by example includes demonstrating a commitment to the team’s values, investing in team members’ career growth, honoring work-life balance norms, acting ethically even when no one is watching, and taking responsibility during challenging situations. It also might mean if you value creativity, for example, as a leader, you strive to approach problems in new ways.

What happens when you don’t lead by example?

Not leading by example can lead to a loss of trust, respect, and employee engagement within your team. This can cause poor morale, decreased productivity, increased staff turnover, and a negative impact on the overall team culture.

Takeaways About Leading by Example

When you lead by example, you can create an environment where your team feels inspired and embodies the team’s core values.

Just remember these tips:

  1. Always give credit and acknowledgment and ask everyone how they want to be acknowledged.
  2. Do the right thing when no one is watching. Act with honesty, respect, and kindness.
  3. Clarify your ideal team values by writing a list of values and slimming it down to your five top values, ranked in order.
  4. Assume that everything you do creates a precedent. You can remember this by putting it on your phone or desktop background.
  5. When stuff hits the fan, always look for where you were responsible. This teaches everyone to become more accountable.
  6. Champion a value for a week by picking one of these five values each week and trying to live it out entirely.
  7. Lead with the mindset you want to inspire to spread empowerment and growth to your team.
  8. Never ask something difficult of your team that you wouldn’t do. And if you notice you’ve done this, take the task on yourself or let the task go.
  9. Invest in their careers even if that means they might leave your team.
  10. When someone leaves the team, send them off with honor and respect. This shows you value your team as humans, not just units of productivity.

Best of luck on your leadership journey! I’m sure you’ve got everything it takes to act as a role model for your team ✨

And if you’d like to think more about leadership skills and discover your charismatic leadership style, you might enjoy this article.

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