Leading by Example Isn’t Enough

In a recent coaching session, a manager said of a teammate “Why can’t they follow my example and act more like me?” It’s a natural desire but an effective manager has to recognize a hard truth: leading by example doesn’t work, at least not the way we expect. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use it, but as managers we shouldn’t expect any behavioral changes in others based solely on how we conduct ourselves.

Bummer, right? Why is that?

Not Everyone Wants to Be Like You

Leading by example leans hard on the assumption that your audience actively wants to emulate you. Even if I admire your work, there’s countless reasons why I may not want to mimick the way you work. This is true even of my direct reports who also manage - just because we have similar roles, not all of them want my job or ask themselves “what would Scott do in this situation” at every turn.

Noisy Signal

Communication and observation is hard. We’re raised on fables and parables which cut out all the extraneous information so that a lesson is made obvious. These have nothing to do with the real world though. Consider this simple story:

Taylor takes a breath before speaking in a flat voice. “Production is hard down - we haven’t had any 200-level responses in the last two minutes. I need someone to dig into our stack and see what’s wrong while someone else reaches out to Customer Service and makes sure they’re aware.”

Ask yourself this: if you want to do one thing to be more like Taylor, what behavior should you emulate?

Here’s an incomplete list of possible answers:

  • staying calm in an emergency
  • speaking with specifics about production incidents
  • including the rest of the business when something is wrong
  • delegation

If Taylor is trying to lead by example then it’s anyone’s guess what we’re supposed to pick up.

Even if you cheat and say “all of the above,” you’re still relying on others to make detailed observations of you in the middle of your interactions. On a good day I’m just about able to walk and talk at the same time, let alone get all the subtleties from the above. That’s a big ask and one that is unlikely to pay off.

No Mechanism for Feedback

Let’s say you get lucky – someone wants to emulate your behavior and even picks the right one. In the lack of explicit conversations about these behaviors, there’s no way for this individual to get feedback on how well they’re doing. The only hope is that you notice their mimicry and are able to give them further guidance. Otherwise, you are just hoping they figure it out themselves.

How to Make Leading by Example Work Anyway

Leading by example is still an effective management technique despite all these issues, particularly with other managers. To make it work, you have to employ one of the most important tools in the managerial toolkit: explicit expectations. In other words, you have to have a detailed conversation about the behavior you want someone to emulate in detail.

Using yourself as an example can be awkward the first few times you do it. You also have to be careful about how often you do this - if each 1:1 drifts into a conversation about your own behaviors and challenges, you risk becoming a narcissistic leader. When these conversations are used thoughtfully, it can be a powerful way to mentor your team and bond through shared challenges.

Going back to the earlier example, imagine if Taylor had said something like this in a 1:1 prior to that moment:

“The next time there’s a production outage, I want you to focus on making fast decisions and communicating them concisely.”

Now Taylor has framed their behavior in a whole new light. The extraneous details can be ignored and Taylor can provide quality followup feedback as someone does or does not emulate this behavior.

What do you think though? Have you found other ways to make leading by example work for you? I’d love to hear them if so.

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