Years ago when my daughter just started preschool she brought home something new, something I wasn’t impressed with. She learned how to roll her eyes and exercised this sassy little habit any time something displeased her. I explained to her why this was not a good practice to get into, and whenever I saw her resort to it I kept reminding: “Don’t roll your eyes”. Later on, when it was all forgotten or so I thought, we were cuddled on the couch reading a book together when I got an eye lash stuck in the outer corner of my eye. In an attempt to get it out I must have tugged on my eye lid and kind of moved it in a circular motion. Then I heard a tiny voice next to me: “Mama, don’t roll your eyes”. Clearly too young to comprehend the true meaning of the expression my 3-year old was nevertheless quick enough to catch me “breaking my own rule” and didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. This brief interaction right there on the spot taught me two important life lessons in one:
- Not to “roll my eyes”, even at the time I am desperate to get a foreign object out;
- And, most importantly, to stay aware that there is always someone watching.
Whether we want it or not, we are leading by example all the time, everywhere. Those around us learn from what we do and not from what we say. It’s true at home, in business and in every other social situation where we might have a leadership role.
So often people misunderstand what true leadership is, and sadly enough the confusion frequently takes place among those who are already holding roles considered leadership roles. The point being missed most commonly is that leadership is not being bossy, is not telling people what to do and is not even sharing with people what kind of values we hold high. Leadership is, above all, living and breathing those same values and principles, as well as modeling the exact behaviour we expect from others. Only our actions gain us trust and credibility, not our feelings, thoughts and words, no matter how noble they may be.
A few things are more disheartening than to see double standards at play. If there are rules in place – whether it’s a rule on wearing your personal protective equipment to enter manufacturing environment in your workplace or a rule on not eating in bedrooms in your family home for example- these rules have to be equally respected by all layers of the organization and by all family members. Otherwise, when abiding by the rules is a hit and miss, or worth yet, certain privileged groups are made exempt from following them, this creates the environment of distrust which eventually leads to resignation and cynicism in people.
“The greatest distance a leader has to travel is the distance from his mouth to his feet”, said James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book “The Truth about Leadership” and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not always easy to follow through with every commitment we make. Often circumstances, lack of resources or changing priorities get in our way. Nevertheless, every time when we fail to show complete consistency between our words and actions, it takes away from our credibility and jeopardizes our behavioral integrity. Here are some things we can do to prevent or minimize these undesirable consequences:
- Learn to say No sometimes. As much praise as the “Yes” Man gets, saying “No” is a valuable and even more powerful skill. Knowing exactly when it’s not only ok but is also best to say “No” is something I have to continue improving on, so you might be hearing more on this subject from me in the future. To prevent over-committing and under-delivering don’t take upon yourself 100% of the things that come your way. Don’t stretch yourself too thin. If you care about adding value and contributing to the greater good, the best way to decide which projects to take on – is to see where the highest impact will be made. Use the tried and tested 80/20 rule to see where your efforts and resources will bring greatest benefits.
- Don’t do everything alone. Work in teams and don’t be afraid to delegate. It’s not necessarily a sign of good leadership to hog all of the projects and complain that you have no one capable enough around you to trust with producing quality results. It is every leader’s job to be a good teacher, to bring out the best in people, empower them and help them expand their knowledge, develop their skills and grow personally. The best teachers don’t fear their students surpassing them in their level of skill one day. There is a great message about teacher-leaders in a documentary called “Horseback Archer” I watched two days ago. This movie on the life’s work of Lajos Kassai, a modern-day Hungarian horseback archery master, teacher and spiritual leader, raises a question on the debate common to our part of the world these days. Is an individual more important or the community and does one have to take from another? “Everyone wants to be a Rambo, but when the situation requires, true heroes form teams or even build communities in order to work together on a common cause,” – is one lesson to take away from Kassai’s wisdom.
- Admitting your mistake is human. If you overestimated your ability to deliver what you promised, it’s best to come clean as early as you can and explain what went wrong to the stakeholders in the process you are responsible for. Simply admit that you’ve misjudged the situation. It may seem to some as a sign of weakness, but in reality it’s a strength that speaks for the leader’s humanity and trustworthiness. Besides, if a leader admits he or she too can be less than perfect, it sets an example for others to communicate openly without feeling compelled to sweep their own mistakes under the rug. To restore your integrity and create a space for a renewed opportunity you can make a new commitment that you will follow through with.
Leading by example is an inevitable part of our life, as many of us carry out more leadership roles that we acknowledge – in our families or our neighborhoods, at work or any non-profit organizations we volunteer our time to. This is something to always stay aware of. And if we know how to talk the talk then we better also know how to walk the proverbial walk.
Do you have someone who has influenced you as a role model for true leadership in your life? And what do you do to serve as a better example for those around you? Please share in the comments any success stories or cautionary tales that you may have so that all of us can take something away from it.