When you take on the role of a manager or executive, you accept the responsibility of setting the tone for your team. Leading by example means being an excellent role model for other employees to emulate.
If you are a founder or a manager, remember that it all starts with you. Be the change you want to see in your team.
Lead by example: Meaning
It’s crucial to be able to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, when you’re a leader.
Leading by example starts with your actions. “I want my team to know (and see) that I would never ask them to do something that I wouldn’t myself be willing to do,” says Melissa Hubbard, CEO at Kerrits Equestrian Apparel.
“That means… unloading deliveries in the warehouse, setting up the trade show booth, doing the spreadsheet work to produce the analytics we need,”
A good leader works alongside their team, and isn’t above doing any tasks and responsibilities themselves. Leading by example means demonstrating the standards you’d like to see, and letting your action set the tone for your organization.
How to lead by example
Here are 11 ways to lead by example in the workplace.
1. Lead with vulnerability
“When you lead like a human, you tell your employees it’s OK to be human too,” shares Logan Mallory, VP of marketing at employee engagement software provider Motivosity.
Talk about your life outside of work and acknowledge things that are going well, but don’t forget about the hard stuff, too. While you don’t have to wear your heart on your sleeve, showing emotion encourages your employees to do the same.
Sharing personal experiences (within reason) at work helps to build trust and connection with your team.
2. Understand appropriate boundaries
While it’s important to connect with your employees, work is not the place for you to dump all of your personal issues.
“One way business leaders can lead by example is by understanding when it’s time to draw the line between professional and personal conversations, relationships, or behavior,” says Bruce Kramer, managing partner at Buttercup Venues, a film location services provider.
Setting boundaries can look like giving a friendly wave instead of a hug, not participating in office gossip, or not answering work emails over the weekend.
3. Lead with gratitude
Did you know that it’s nearly impossible to feel grateful and unhappy at the same time? According to research from Alex Korb, an author and UCLA neuroscientist, human minds cannot focus on positive and negative information simultaneously.
When you feel grateful, your brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine. Leading with gratitude breeds positivity, team cohesion, and starts a chain reaction of appreciation throughout the workplace.
Korb suggests building a gratitude practice by simply thinking about one thing you’re grateful for every day or writing thank you notes to people who have helped you, which will make employees feel more appreciated and more inclined to show appreciation to others.
4. Lead with empathy
When you lead with empathy, you take time to validate your employees’ emotions and feel with them — not for them.
The first step is to be more aware of your own emotions. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and why. This will help you be more attuned to the emotions of others.
Then, make an effort to listen to people more deeply. Try to understand their point of view, even if it’s different from your own.
Finally, practice responding with compassion, instead of judgment. Whenever someone is going through a tough time, offer a kind word or a helping hand to show you care.
5. Lead with transparency
When your employees feel like you aren’t being upfront and honest with them about their job or company, it can create a culture of distrust and distance instead of loyalty and respect.
Leading with transparency means you’re willing to share the wins and the losses openly and confidently. Communicate results, both positive and negative, with your team and be clear about expectations and role descriptions.
6. Admit when you’ve made a mistake
Some leaders are afraid to show weakness, so they hide or downplay their mistakes. But true professionals are willing to admit when they’ve made a wrong turn and work to fix it.
“I own up to my mistake… so my people know it’s OK to take risks and make mistakes,” says Andrea Heuston, founder of presentation design firm Artitudes Design. “Failure is how you learn and grow. If I didn’t model that behavior, my team would never take risks and try new things.”
During your weekly team and management meetings, aim to not only share successes, but also to dissect any challenges and opportunities for improvement.
7. Set a cultural standard of accountability
Building a culture of accountability starts at the top. Ryan Niddel, founder of The Niddel Group, recommends setting clear objectives, clear key results, clear schedules, and clearly defined desired outcomes with continuously updated statuses that the entire company is able to view.
Model the behavior you want to see, whether it be professional ethics or quality of work. Don’t ignore the small things — like showing up on time — and make sure you exhibit the traits you want to see at all times.
Follow through on promises — trust can only be built when there is consistency between your words and your actions.
8. Promote the importance of work-life balance
If founders want to prevent their employees from burning out, they should lead by example and show the positive effects of having a life outside of work. Management should practice self-care and set boundaries in the workplace.
For instance, you could commit to completely unplugging while on vacation, or informing your team that you do not answer emails and calls after hours. This allows employees to feel more comfortable doing the same.
“It’s easy to tell team members to take time for themselves when they need it. But if you’re not actually doing the same, you’ve created an unspoken expectation that they keep up with you,” says Sara Bodner, digital content manager at digital marketing agency Conklin Media.
9. Avoid motivational shame and offer support
Motivation is important, but it can be harmful if it creates a culture of toxic positivity where difficult emotions are rejected in favor of an ever-cheerful facade.
When a team member shows signs of distress or expresses a concern, rather than trying to fix their pain or discomfort, validate their feelings by offering them the safety, silence, and space to feel and express their emotions.
Instead of immediately chiming in with solutions, you can ask your co-worker how you can best support them, then sit back and really consider their answers.
10. Show a strong work ethic
Another way business leaders can lead by example is by being the first to come in and the last to leave.
By showing up on time (if not early), taking part in critical projects, and helping your team solve its biggest problems, your employees will better understand what’s expected of them and gain more respect for you.
11. Understand the business
Do you have a firm grasp of the hands-on processes that power your organization? While delegation is critical to growth, you never want to lose touch of what’s happening in the company.
“I’ve worked for leaders where every on-the-ground reality is a matter of distant theory or something ‘somebody else understands,’” shares Trevor Ewen, COO at QBench, a laboratory information management system.
To lead by example, it’s important to get down to the factory floor and understand the people, processes, and technologies that power your organization. After all, how can you expect your team to be grounded if you’re not?
Leaders who lead by example
Great leaders are forged by different circumstances and challenges. From the national stage to the big screen, there are exceptional leaders anywhere.
Renowned for his collaborative work style, enthusiasm and optimism, Churchill often led by example by giving credit to others.
According to the International Churchill Society, when cheered at the demise of Nazi Germany, he responded, “I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the nation. It was a nation and race dwelling all round that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Known for being humble and caring of those around him, Reeves is said to treat everyone, from junior crew members to directors, with the same respect and appreciation. This encourages a safe and positive workplace that benefits the whole, not the few.
It was during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, when Michelle Obama spoke her now-famous words, “When they go low, we go high.”
Years later, during Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life In Focus tour, Obama explained that it’s easy to lead by fear and divisiveness, but doing so does not solve any problems.
Obama said that her life’s purpose doesn’t revolve around taking care of her own ego, but ensuring that she’s a positive role model for the next generation.