Here’s What Happens When You Lead by Example

David Lee

If you wish your team would work harder, produce better results, and show initiative, start by looking in the mirror and ask yourself:

“Do I truly model the attitudes and behaviors I want to see in my people?”
“Does who I am—not just what I say—inspire people to be their best?”

Recently at a Leading by Example seminar, I noticed a team of managers who stood out because of their clear passion for their work, being their best, and making a difference. They even talked about leadership books they had read. That fact alone made me take notice, since most participants I poll haven’t heard of—let alone read—90% of the books I mention.

As the day unfolded and they revealed more of who they were and what they were about, I remembered how this same group stood out in a previous seminar, for the same reasons. They had an energy and enthusiasm about them I rarely saw in others.

Clearly they worked in an environment that fostered passion, commitment and pride. I wondered what their manager had done to foster such an environment and grow such a great group of leaders. Always interested in what great leaders do to create an atmosphere that brings out the best in people, I decided to find out.


They Work for a VERY Different Kind of Leader

So, I contacted Jerry Merrill, the Director of Merchandising at Sure Winner Foods, an ice cream, novelties and frozen food distributor, to find out what he does to create such an inspired, “Can Do” culture. I also interviewed several of his managers.

I can honestly say I have NEVER met a leader more beloved and respected by his people. I have never met a leader whose team repeatedly talked about how much they admired their manager and how much they consciously worked at treating their team the way Jerry treats them.

To fully disclose my findings would take a 10-15 page whitepaper, but instead what I will do is share them with you in “installments”, to make the take away points easier to digest.

In this installment, we’ll look at the impact it makes when a leader truly DOES lead by example, as well as a few specifics on what this leader does to foster such a committed, enthusiastic team.


Why Bother to Learn Leadership Practices From This Man?

I want to share with you the “Why” first, because for you to do the work to become an even better leader will take commitment, self-discipline and work on your part. For you to do the hard work, you need to believe it’s worth it. So we will start with the “Is it really worth it?” question with these stories Jerry Merrill’s management team shared with me.


How Would You Like THIS Kind of Employee Engagement and Initiative?

One of Sure Winner Foods Area Managers, Pete DeRaps, shared a story about his team and what they did at their annual awards and recognition meeting for the Merchandizing division:

“Here we are at this big meeting and it’s Happy Hour. We’ve been at it since 6:30 AM and there’s still the evening awards session ahead of us. My team chases me down and says ‘Look, we want to have a meeting and come up with some good questions for the Q&A session that’s coming up later.’”


This is the same team that decided they would meet on a monthly basis on their own time, to grow as a team, stay in the loop, and become even better leaders. This team also won four awards at the event.

How would you like that level of employee engagement? What difference would it make to your team results if your managers and all of your employees showed this level of initiative?

As you think about what Pete DeRaps might be doing to foster this kind of enthusiasm and engagement, also think of the truism “Leadership starts at the top”. While I have met supervisors and managers who demonstrate far better leadership skills than their own manager, it’s obviously far more likely that your people will be great leaders if YOU model great leadership behaviours.


When Employees Know They Matter, They ACT Like They Matter

Jason Carr, another Area Manager at Sure Winner Foods, recounted his first few days on the job and how he realized that he was now working for a leader who cared about what his people thought, wanted them to speak up, and actually listened.

“For someone starting out, it takes time to realize you have a voice. With Jerry, I realized from Day One that I had a voice; that there were no repercussions for speaking up.”

How did he get the message that his voice was valued and speaking up was encouraged? He noticed that Jerry not only listened to his team members’ opinions, he encouraged them to speak up if they disagreed with his perspective. How often have you seen this happen in your career?

If you have been lucky enough to have a manager who encouraged you to speak up and offer a different perspective, you know how much more engaged you are when your voice is heard and respected. You want to offer your ideas and you want to make things better. You want to make a difference.

When employees feel they matter, they act like they matter. They share their ideas, they offer ideas on how processes and products can be improved, and they look for ways to make a contribution. In short, they act like “players”, rather than hired hands.


Who You Are Speaks so Loudly…

Often when I asked Jerry’s team for specific examples of what he did that fostered respect and commitment, and what made him inspiring, they struggled to find the words. Often after several follow-up questions for specific examples of what he did, I would get comments like “It’s just the way Jerry is” or “It’s just the way he carries himself”. It seemed like much of what made Jerry a great leader was ineffable—not capable of being described with words.

“I have people who will run through walls to get something done for Jerry.” Pete DeRaps 

At first blush, this might not seem terribly instructive—i.e. “Great…well I’m not him…so what can I learn from that?” But it’s actually VERY instructive for three reasons.

First, it speaks to the truth of the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you’re saying.” Regardless of what we say, who we ARE has a far larger effect on others.

Second, it speaks to the importance of self-awareness. We need to know and leverage our strengths and discover our blind spots. It’s important for us to know if we are truly acting on our values, if we are “walking our talk.” It’s also important for us to know how we are perceived by others, regardless of our intentions. Because our essence and our presence—how we “show up”—has such a huge effect on others and our ability to lead by example, it pays to know something about these.

Third, it speaks to the importance of developing yourself as a person, and not just see development as solely you learning new skills or knowing what good managers do.

I remember the head of one organization I worked with telling me that the weakest member of his leadership team kept telling him that he had been to many leadership seminars over the years and he knew everything that we were covering in mine. He might have known intellectually what the right things were, but he didn’t do them. Also, his essence and presence did not inspire confidence, loyalty, or engagement in his team. Thus, his intellectual knowledge did not translate into results.

So, if you want to be a strong, inspiring leader who gets results, make sure you work on yourself, so WHO you are and your presence, inspires others.


Where to Start

Start by asking your peers and your own manager for feedback on what they see as your greatest strengths and areas that you most need to work on. Their willingness to share honestly and openly with you will obviously depend on your track record of openness, and willingness to listen. Also, the stronger your personality, the less likely people are to give you difficult news. So, the value of this will depend on all of these variables.

  1. Conduct both a self-assessment and get 360 degree feedback to find out what you do really well and in what areas you need to improve.
  2. Engage an outsider to augment the feedback provided by your 360 feedback survey by conducting in-depth interviews.
  3. Share with your team the results and what you will be working on.
  4. Engage your team in conversations about how you can be an even more effective leader.
  5. Develop, whether on your own, or with the help of a coach, a development plan to help you grow. By doing so, you will “grow” better results, you will grow your team to be leaders who also lead by example, and you will grow your business or division.


David Lee is founder and principal of http://www.humannatureatwork.com. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as over almost 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at http://www.humannatureatwork.com or contact him at [email protected]

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