What Does It Mean to Lead by Example?

Leaders often hear that they must lead by example to get their employees on board with their company's goals. Four leaders share how they do just that.
May 18, 2017

"Lead by example." 

At first glance, it sounds like yet another business buzzword. If you dig deeper, however, you'll see bits and pieces of that phrase in practice at some of the fastest growing businesses in the world. 

Great companies often have leaders who can not only keep a company on track towards a common goal, but can make that goal a shared one for everyone involved in getting the company there.

Let's have a look at what the leaders at companies across a wide variety of industries have to say about this buzzword that's anything but. How do these leaders lead by example?

1. Establish priorities to help leaders lead by example.

Tru-Vue has been around since 1946. Their niche? They're a manufacturer of high-performance glazing products for the custom picture framing, museum and engineered optics markets. CEO Jane Boyce believes that establishing priorities for yourself as a leader is the first step to leading by example.

Being vulnerable is sometimes uncomfortable but it goes a long way to strengthen our culture and create bonds of empathy, respect and openness among teammates.

—Taro Fukuyama, co-founder, Fond

"I believe there are three important aspects to leading by example," says Boyce. "First, having the same or higher performance expectations for myself as I have for my team members. Next, I have to model and live the attitude and behaviors that I want in my team. Finally, I have to be appreciative when the performance, effort and behaviors are shown."

When leaders establish their priorities for their own leadership practice, they can set the bar from above and live the bar being set. Which is a perfect place to mention integrity.

2. Show your team you have integrity.

Roji Health Intelligence has used technology to help health care providers improve patient health and healing since 2002. Co-founder and CEO Terry Hush believes placing integrity first each day is the key for establishing leadership examples.

"Following through on commitments and promises is one of the most important qualities that a leader can instill in employees," says Hush, "and it can only be understood by seeing it happen all the way from the top or the organization on down." 

Rush builds on Boyce's principles of a leader holding themselves to higher performance standards with a next level of action—follow-through. Positive movement can be hard for a leader who only pays lip service and won't get their hands dirty with the rest of their team in pursuit of a goal.

However, when you're willing to get your hands dirty,  sharing the results of your labors—both the wins and losses—can help you lead by example.

Speaking of getting your hands dirty...

3. Get in there with your team.

Motus Global is in the trenches every day with its clients. Their sole goal with both their software and specialty sleeves for athletes is to prevent injury and improve performance. 

Motus' CEO Joe Nolan puts himself in the game right next to his employees to make this goal a reality.

"Don't ask someone to do something you wouldn't do yourself," says Nolan. "This can be as simple as placing markers on a high school athlete during a biomechanical assessment or taking a business trip [that] causes you to miss a child's school or sporting event. I always responded better to the coaches that laced up the skates with us than the ones that stood behind the bench and critiqued."

And when you're meeting the bar you've set for your team, approaching every task with integrity and willing to get your hands dirty—what else can accelerate a desire to lead by example?

Sharing can help.

4. Establish vulnerability to help improve your company culture.

Taro Fukuyama, CEO and co-founder or Fond, believes that an essential component of leading by example is showing that leaders are vulnerable, not impenetrable.

"One of our core values at Fond is 'build trust like a family,' which we define as being vulnerable to each other, being open to feedback, admitting mistakes and admitting weakness," says Fukuyama. "We believe these practices will build the strongest trust among the team."

"Being vulnerable is sometimes uncomfortable but it goes a long way to strengthen our culture and create bonds of empathy, respect and openness among teammates," he continues. "So as co-founder and CEO, I do share my personal annual reviews, my personal annual goals to the company, share my own 360 performance reviews and ask for feedback, openly admitting when I need guidance so that other employees can see its value and know that for our organization, it's the right behavior. In addition, it's very critical to recognize when others follow suit: It reinforces the example, and we see it repeated across the organization [daily]."

Leading by example can be more than just a buzzword. It can be a multifaceted approach to building better leaders who are personally committed to both their own growth and their respective company's growth. They may also know that one can't happen without the other. 

As you evaluate your own leadership methods, try not to shy away from the hard questions. Consider asking for feedback and opening yourself up to your team as they've opened themselves up to you.

The results just might be exceptional.

Read more articles on leadership.

Photo: Getty Image