3 Times You Need to Lead by Example

Leadership can be fraught with difficulty, and as it doesn't come with an instruction manual you'll often find yourself trying to figure things out and hoping it all works out. There are times when the best choice you can make is to step up, stand up and lead by example.

Here are three of those times.

1. When You're Asking a Lot from People

When the work is stacked high, the pressure is monumental and the risk of failure is all-too-real, the whole team needs to double-down and bring it.

As a leader, it's on you to have the team come together and apply just the right amount of pressure to help them deliver.

Asking more from your team, department or organisation is sometimes necessary, but can be pretty awkward when they're already applying themselves and delivering great work.

In these times, you need to lead by example.

  • Look for how you can dial up your own work first, before you ask others to do the same.
  • Experiment with a way to do something smarter or better, and let people know they can do the same.
  • Still honour the boundaries that are immovable to you, no matter how heavy the pressure.
  • Make yourself accessible and available to the team for whatever they need.
  • Give people a target and purpose to rally around, but encourage everyone to find their own purpose and reasons for doing great work rather than having blind faith in yours.

When you're asking more, leading by example is about doing whatever you can do to serve the team.

2. When the Outcome is Unknown

As a leader there will be times when you haven't got a clue what will happen. Whether you're launching something new, trialling a new way of working, or tackling a problem with something fresh or innovative, the outcome is unknown.

It's tempting to present some fake confidence, to tell everyone you know exactly what's going to happen or to pretend that you have all the answers.

But to lead by example sometimes requires vulnerability. It requires you to send the message,

This could go any number of ways, and whatever happens we're the very best people to figure it out step by step. I trust you.

Leadership isn't glossing over reality, it isn't delivering fake news and it isn't making failure something to be avoided at all costs.

Leading by example is demonstrating the trust you have in those around when it's really needed.

3. When the Shit Hits the Fan

Things get real when the shit hits the fan. Short tempers, judgement, barked orders, stress, blame and more get stirred into a bubbling stew, and nobody likes the taste.

In the middle of the pressure, anxiety and sometimes-chaos when things go wrong, it's more important than ever to lead by example.

Breathe, and watch out for how your feelings and emotions might want to pull you towards unhelpful behaviour.

Own it, don't dodge it, try to sidestep it or try to obfuscate.

Ask for suggestions and invite opinions, and listen to what people are saying.

Let people know you'll get through this because they're smart people doing great work, and resist the urge to pull all the power and control towards you.

When you make a decision, do it in service of great work and not covering up, patching over or getting away with it.

Leading by example...

If you're a leader, and you're not leading by example, what are you doing?

You're asking people to do things you're not prepared to do yourself. You're working incongruently and creating a disconnect. You're not serving the people you're supposed to be leading.

I think they call that an autocrat.

To hell with that. To lead by example, with all the uncertainty and vulnerability that comes with it, is the spirit of confident leadership.

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