Make your vision stick

Defining the example first, then leading by example

As we go through life, we end up collecting a bunch of “truths” or mantras that subconsciously form the way we see the world.  This starts in the home we grow up in, where we are subjected to certain rules and norms.  “Money doesn’t grow on trees”, “If you’re going to do something, do it properly” and “Second means first loser” come to mind.  Depending on how forcefully these messages are delivered, and on how susceptible we are at the time, they have the potential to hard-wire our behaviors for the rest of our lives.  Then it just becomes the way we do things, or “the way I’m wired.”

Entering the world of work we are again presented with various examples and organizational cultures that define how we see the world.  A new set of mantras become part of our library from which we choose our actions, although at this point we do have a bit more discernment.  But there are many that we accept as simple truths, applicable anywhere and everywhere, without ever asking what they actually mean.  One of my favorite misnomers here is the much-revered requirement to “Lead By Example”.  It seems obviously a good thing, but before reading further, take a moment to think what that means for you.

How do I lead by example?**

I have had a varied career, to say the least. In addition to various roles in two companies, I also found myself in a variety of industries as a result of our varied client base.

My roles often required me to facilitate workshops about leadership in one form or another. Here “leader” is a very broad definition, and not limited to a position. When asked what kind of leadership people wanted, one answer always came up: “Leading by example.” But when I asked what “leading by example” actually meant to them, their answers were very diverse. In some cases, people are looking for a leader that knows how to do everything they can do—only better. You may have come across this expectation by being asked, or by saying, something along these lines: “You’ve never soldered anything in your life. How are you going to teach me anything?” This was an actual event. In this case, “example” means a technical master.

In another case where I wanted an appointment with an academic leader, I was told that they had several people with PhD’s in various subjects reporting to them, and therefore I probably couldn’t have anything to add? In this case, “example” meant a superior and greater level of knowledge.

Lastly, in my favorite case, when I was promoted to a Foundry Manager, I was pledged support by a rough and ready maintenance manager, many years my senior, with the words, “I don’t believe you are enough of a bastard to succeed at this job, but while you are here, I will support you.” In this case, “example” meant a particular leadership style.

This is my favorite example, by the way, because two years later the same maintenance manager applauded my team on having achieved better results than we had ever achieved before, and by all accounts I had not turned into a bastard.

There are many other possibilities, for example, the best ideas, the best strategies, the best opportunities, but they all fall short when there is an expectation that the leader is the best at everything. The final nail in this particular coffin comes when good leaders say that they aim to surround themselves with individuals who are better than they are. So how would they lead by example?

People simply don’t know how to articulate what they are looking for in a leader who “leads by example”. The knowledge view doesn’t work, because the CEO of a research institute cannot possibly know more than all his employees. The technical master view falls flat because a sports team’s coach cannot play better than every player on the team. The leadership style expectation is also doomed because not everybody on the team would want the same type of leader. Yet, everybody wants someone that can set an example.

What people are asking for when they would like someone to lead by example, is actually a leader they can trust, respect, and learn from in a positive sense. A leader that will put themselves on the line for the team, value the team members, and help them achieve their goals, as well as the organization’s goals. A leader with a vision and an ability to achieve results with and through the team. In short, they are looking for a positive role model.

This is good news for leaders who are focused on the team’s development. It is not always necessary to have the technical knowledge in order to add value to the team. By way of example, a few years ago I was an executive coach to Ryno Kotze, the MD of RSA Litho, a printing company running 24-hour production, five days a week. Ryno then employed me on a part-time basis to improve production.

Officially, I was the head of production. I had production experience and people skills, but when it came to printing, I wasn’t even competent to change the cartridge on my home printer. I had absolutely no clue about this industry, and my appointment must have come as a shock to many of the team members. But Ryno sold it well, and I put my best efforts into getting to know the team members and some of the intricacies of the processes. What I discovered, not surprisingly, was that the supervisors and team leaders really knew their stuff, and really didn’t need my advice on any printing issues.

In fact, as a coach, I knew to ask them the relevant questions and then they would figure things out themselves. They were a great group of individuals, but they needed to be turned into a great team. We made a number of operational changes, and then developed a strong vision for the one hundred or so production people to focus on. We also implemented weekly meetings where I would meet with the employees of every shift for 10 minutes. These meetings were held at 6am, 2pm and 10pm every week and gave me the opportunity to direct the vision and train the greater team. We called this a ”drip-feed” approach.

In addition, we developed production measures that told the team how we were doing. We put all this in place fairly quickly, and despite early setbacks, just kept at it, waiting for the law of cause and effect to run its course (see “Focus” in the next section). The theory was finally proven when, in the November of that year, traditionally the busiest month, sales and production were the highest the company had ever achieved, and it was achieved with uncharacteristically low wastage and the lowest overtime cost to date.

The purpose of this example is to illustrate that skill in leadership is universally applicable and can add value across industries and in different sized companies. As a good leader, you can lead by example anywhere, and be a positive role model to many individuals.**

Putting it into practice

At the core of high performance entities, be they people, teams, families or organizations, is a crystal clear picture of what the end goal is (vision), and an equally clear picture of what role every individual has in achieving that goal.  Having a tangible measure or scoreboard helps to ensure that everybody knows where they currently are, what progress is being made and whether the goal is being achieved.

There is no space for any ambiguity that could creep in.  Therefore it becomes important to stay away from cliche phrases which assume we all understand the same thing.  Furthermore, any statements that are made must be clearly explained to ensure mutual understanding.  Even terms like trust, integrity and character, become very subjective when you ask your team members what they mean to them as individuals.

When forming a vision and/or a set of values for a team I suggest the following process:

  1. Put the first draft on paper – this is the easy part, and as I have been told by a prominent writer, “Do it quickly because the first draft is always s*&t”.
  2. As a team, pull it apart and agree on the words that describe what you are trying to say.

This is the point where most teams will think the job has been done.  Posters can now be printed and emails sent out.  But not so fast…..

  • Now visit every substantial word and catch phrase (eg. Leading by example) and investigate within the team exactly what that should mean for this organization.
  • Develop specific scenarios that demonstrate how this vision or value will be lived out.  For example  “We put the customer first by always assuming their complaint is valid and true and investigating ways to improve their experience.”  Many scenarios will exist, just like when developing plays in sports.
  • Develop specific measures that support the behaviors that have now been specifically designed.
  • Communicate, explain, demonstrate and elicit feedback from the broader team to ensure everybody gets it.  This will be done multiple times.
  • Now we are ready to lead by example, and to reward others who do the same.
  • Refer to the vision and values, the progress being made, and specific incidents where possible, at every executive meeting.  If the people at the top aren’t engaged, nobody else will be either.

This may seem like a tedious exercise, but developing a culture of performance and leadership doesn’t happen by accident.  They happen by doing the hard work that allows that culture to thrive.

How will you lead by example?

About the author

Dieter Jansen has led teams for 30 years in different industries and at different levels. He has a passion for people, particularly value-based leaders of any age.

Starting as an engineer, Dieter is an International Executive Leadership Coach, and consults to businesses and individuals, inspiring in them greater practical belief in their own abilities and aspirations.

** Excerpt from the book Decision Point – How the decisions you make, make you.  The book delves into 30 decisions that will define the leader you become.  Available on Amazon at

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