Lead by example

How to Lead by Example at Work

“Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself,” said Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM.

From battlefields to boardrooms, leadership styles and qualities have been debated extensively. The only consensus seems to be that great leaders show their teams how it’s done—i.e., they lead by example. 

If you’re a business leader or a manager, here’s everything you need to know about leading by example.

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The Concept Of Leading By Example

Leading by example refers to the practice of modeling the qualities and behaviors you expect from your team members. Through actions, attitudes, and approaches to work, you demonstrate to the rest of the team what you want to see and how best to get the work done. 

Leading by example is characterized by:

Personal accountability: A leader feels responsible for the behavior and performance of their team. You make it part of your job to provide all resources and show your team how work is done.

Value-focus: Leading by example isn’t about writing code or content to show the teams how to do their job. It is much bigger than that. It is about clarifying the values one must embody and acting in alignment. 

For example, if one of the company’s values is honesty, a leader gives and receives feedback—irrespective of designation or authority—honestly. 

Consistency: A leader behaves consistently in the way they expect their team members to behave. For instance, if timeliness is a behavior you’re modeling, then, you will show up on time to every meeting/event consistently.

Authenticity: Authentic leaders are transparent in their decision-making, walking the team through the variables and processes involved. You will make their team aware of your motives and actions, enabling others to follow not just the act, but the thought-process behind it as well.

Openness: When you lead by example, you are intellectually humble and open to changing your approach based on new information or compelling opinions.

All said and done, leading by example is the practice of the old adage, actions speak louder than words. However, it is a qualitative and behavioral concept that sits in the vast landscape between black and white. It is an approach that is reflected in your own actions, however big or small.

If you’re looking to practice leading by example, here are ten strategies that can help.

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10 Strategies to Lead by Example

At the outset, leading by example seems simple: Behave the way you want your team to behave. In practice, especially in a large organization, managing teams, it can become overwhelming.

To avoid that and be consistent in your leadership, the following ten strategies set a solid foundation. Let’s get started.

1. Decide what you want to be an example of

First things first, to lead by example, you need to decide what kind of leader you are. For example, the leader of a struggling company needs to be vulnerable and motivating. The manager of an overworked team must be empathetic and supportive. 

To lead by example, begin by:

  • Outlining your vision: Show the team what you’re expecting the future to look like
  • Clarifying values: Outline the values that are important to you and expect the team to follow
  • Demonstrating behaviors: Act the way you want your team to act—be open, speak straight, be on time, document everything, etc.

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is a powerful resource to begin your journey towards leading by example. Check out this summary of Start with Why to see if it’s right for you.

2. Communicate openly

You might think you’re leading by example, but that can often go unnoticed. For instance, you might always keep your camera on in Zoom meetings, but team members who are shy might not follow suit and might not think much of it.

So, when modeling behaviors isn’t enough, it helps to be more explicit about it. For instance, create a ‘working with me’ document that your team can access.

You can set it up on a tool like ClickUp Docs, which you can share with everyone on your team. They might even comment on the doc or ask questions, strengthening your collaborative work in the process. 

ClickUp Docs
Documenting your leadership style on ClickUp Docs

New to writing about your working style? No stress. The ClickUp Team Docs template will get you off the ground.

3. Provide useful and constructive feedback; receive the same too

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is assuming a position of authority, thereby not taking feedback from their teams and juniors. When you behave this way, the team learns that they don’t need to be collaborative or take feedback as well.

Instead, prioritize seeking feedback and taking action on them.

  • Have open-door hours: This will encourage employees to walk in, share ideas, ask questions, and seek guidance without worrying about scheduling meetings 
  • Ask for opinion: In standup calls, retrospectives, and brainstorming sessions, ask each person for their opinion. Even nudge the silent ones gently
  • Encourage debate: Empower people to disagree with you. Do this publicly, so other team members can be reassured that they can debate with you 

If your team is distributed, build virtual spaces to do this. Have an open plan office sort of set up with a tool like ClickUp Chat view. Have contextual conversations (in nested comments), debating ideas and suggestions. 

ClickUp Chat
Have open conversations and lead by example with ClickUp Chat

For a more structured feedback mechanism, try the ClickUp Employee Feedback template. This fully customizable template allows you to gather feedback, visualize sentiment, and build a company culture of transparency.

4. Encourage a transparent workplace

Transparency in leadership is often presented as a virtue, like the right thing to do. However, few understand why transparency is important. Here it is.

In knowledge work, success depends on everyone knowing as much as collectively possible. For example, if your content writer doesn’t know that you use Oxford commas, you’re going to have inconsistent writing. Transparency enables you to increase the collective knowledge of the organization. 

Here are some ways you can create a transparent workplace:

  • Documentation: Write down observations, meeting notes, insights, etc. and share it widely with the organization. ClickUp Docs is a great way to do this
  • Systems: Set up a project management system to manage and track all the work you do. This makes information accessible to everyone involved
  • Reports: Build reports for metrics that matter. ClickUp Dashboards can automatically do that for you when you manage your projects with ClickUp
ClickUp Dashboard
Track all your essential metrics in one place with customizable ClickUp Dashboards

5. Practice authenticity and vulnerability

Authenticity can be the glue that binds your organization together. Great leaders learn to show vulnerability without appearing weak. 

In his book Shoe Dog, Nike’s co-founder and ex-CEO Phil Knight talks about the time when they had just launched Nike and the company was facing its first big crisis. Knight gathered his employees together and laid bare the threats and obstacles facing the company. 

Transparency about the impending crisis and openly acknowledging possible risks helped embolden his employees. The talk turned out to be a rallying cry for the fledgling organization.

Leading with authenticity also shows the teams that they can be vulnerable with you. They can escalate any toxicity and resolve conflicts, thereby creating a safe and inclusive workplace.

For practical advice about shame, vulnerability, and empathy, read this summary of Dare to Lead, Brené Brown’s roadmap to courageous leadership.

6. Set team goals

Business leaders have a tendency to set company goals with the board and then pass them on to their teams. This sometimes makes teams feel like their targets were handed out to them. 

To lead by example:

  • Set the goals together with the team
  • Ask them what’s achievable
  • Take responsibility for the team achieving their goals
  • Actively learn what they need
  • Monitor progress on a regular basis and support the team where needed

ClickUp Goals is perfect for setting targets, measuring progress, and interjecting as needed.

ClickUp Goals
Set goals and track progress with ClickUp Goals

7. Don’t be scared of making a fool of yourself

The problems that modern organizations solve need creative and adventurous thinking. Sometimes, the ideas may sound silly. Teams need to feel reassured that all their ideas will be welcome without judgment.

To enable this, be open to sharing ideas openly. 

  • Invite people to speak their mind and demonstrate active listening without judging them
  • Encourage the team not to reject ideas straightaway but explore the direction in which they lead
  • Within the team, build guard-rails to avoid reckless decisions

8. Schedule Q&A hours

Business leaders have open houses with the organization, inviting everyone to ask questions. In such sessions, questions are often about the organization, plans, updates, etc.

In addition to that, set aside Q&A hours with your team to show them how you’d do something. Encourage them to ask questions like, “how would you solve this problem?” or “how would you approach this situation?”

While you might not want your team to come to you for every little thing, it helps to allow them to do so once in a while. This way of leading by example teaches your team within context. It shows them you’re there to help when the going gets tough.

9. Spend time in your teams’ shoes

One of the biggest problems leaders face is that they become too distant from the ground reality. For instance, the head of engineering might not know the everyday challenges faced by their developers, such as limitations on development environments or lack of automation tools.

To lead by example, set aside some time where you’ll either do the jobs your teams do, or watch them while at work. For instance, you could do pair programming with a developer. Or take a few features and run some tests.

This will reassure your team that you want to understand their experiences and make it better for them.

10. Evolve with the times

A war-time prime minister needs completely different skills and attitudes from a peace-time one. So, be the leader your teams and organization need you to be. When the economy is slow, you might be creative or aggressive. When the investment is flowing, you might invest in training and experimentation. 

When your team is small, you might have a closer relationship with everyone. But when your team grows, you might even struggle to remember everyone’s name.

As a successful leader, it’s your job to evolve with the times. Show your team that change is not only inevitable but can also be positive.

For example, if you’re a leader managing the change to return to office, you show up in person everyday. Talk about how it’s helping you and how it might help your team. Accept disagreements head-on and debate positively. If it still doesn’t work, don’t shy away from retracting your plan altogether.

While all of these strategies can be really helpful, each individual is different. During the course of leading by example, challenges are bound to arise. Let’s see how you can overcome them.

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Overcoming Challenges in Leading by Example

Leadership strategies and management styles differ across and within organizations. 

Change leadership directs an organization through transformation. This situation—like COVID-19 or economic volatility—is often thrown at the leader, which they must navigate to be successful. James Daunt of Barnes and Noble is a great example of a change leader who took the business from the brink of bankruptcy to positive growth.

Emergent leadership, on the other hand, rises to the position organically and guides teams without relying on formal authority. They are adaptable and more in sync with the team. Satya Nadella is exemplary of an emergent leader.

Ethical leadership is about doing the right thing, not just for the bottom line but also for the employees, customers, and society at large. 

Depending on the organization, market situation, and leadership skills, here are some challenges a good leader might encounter and how to overcome them.

Lack of a unified vision

To lead by example, your team needs to see and relate to your own behavior. Without a unified mission and principles, your exemplary actions can go unnoticed.

Solution: Document your vision and leadership philosophy. Discuss it with your team members regularly. Encourage them to make decisions based on the principles, values, and beliefs you’ve set together. 

Delegation

Every manager, however experienced, struggles to delegate at some point. Sometimes, they might not have the right person on their team to carry out the task. At other times, they themselves might not be clear about what they need.

Solution

  • Document in detail the work you need done, expectations, goals, and outcomes. Writing it down creates clarity and serves as a reference
  • Provide all the resources necessary to get the work done
  • Explain how you want it done (a document detailing “here’s how I would do it” is a great way to lead by example
  • When you update documentation, tag your teams so the information isn’t missed. ClickUp Assign Comments enables exactly this
  • Schedule regular check-ins and offer feedback on progress

Coping with change

Change is hard, not just for teams, but the leaders as well. When the situation is volatile and constantly evolving, leading by example can be difficult.

Solution

  • Seek to learn as much about the change as possible
  • Perform scenario planning to be prepared for possible turbulences
  • Openly embrace the unpredictability and assure your teams that you’re with them
  • Be empathetic and offer support and resources to your teams

Self-management

This might sound silly, but to lead by example, you should be able to manage yourself expertly. Several leaders lack this quality. They themselves might be overworked, temperamental, or bashful, inadvertently creating a similar culture among their teams. 

Solution:

  • Outline your goals and behaviors clearly
  • Remind yourself of your values everyday to behave in alignment with that
  • Conduct regular reviews with yourself to see if you’re setting the right example
  • Collect feedback from the team and recalibrate your performance 
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Benefits and Drawbacks of Leading by Example

Leading by example is a great strategy for various reasons.

  • Respect: When the leader walks the talk, a team member is more likely to respect them
  • Trust: A manager who leads by example knows their team’s predicaments. So, they are the most trusted
  • Positive work culture: Good leaders ensure that their teams know that they’re not speaking from their ivory tower. This creates a positive work environment
  • Transparency: When you lead by example, you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This creates empathy, compassion, and transparency
  • Morale: Knowing that your manager holds themselves to the same standards as they hold the team members boosts employee morale
  • Customer loyalty: Happy and respectful employees treat their customers well, building a sense of brand loyalty that is unique and specific to your company

This doesn’t mean that leading by example doesn’t have its drawbacks. 

Pressure: For starters, it can take a toll on the leader to always uphold a certain standard. It gives you the feeling that you need to be infallible, which can be a lot of pressure.

Erosion of trust: Any inconsistency in behavior can lead to erosion of trust, which can be near impossible to rebuild.

Too tactical: When you lead by example, you run the risk of becoming too tactical, showing everyone what and how to do their work. This can eat into the time you need to be strategic and visionary. 

Like any leadership style, the above drawbacks can be overcome with some thought, empathy, and a strategic approach.

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Lead by Example With ClickUp

Going by Thomas J. Watson’s immortal words, the first step to leading by example is to manage yourself. Setting your goals, documenting your philosophies, tracking your performance, and even journaling everyday can help make a great start. Once your understand yourself, it’s time to know your team and lead them by example.

Irrespective of which of the above ten strategies you follow, you can do enormously better with a robust team management tool like ClickUp.

Designed to be a comprehensive project management software, ClickUp gives you every tool you need to manage yourself and your team.

Need to write down personal goals? Try ClickUp Goals. Like journaling regularly? Use ClickUp Docs. Managing a project team? Use the ClickUp Workload view to allocate work fairly. Want to collect feedback? Use any of the feedback form templates.

Manage yourself and your team effectively. Set a good example. Try ClickUp today!

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