Lead by example. We all know it’s an important leadership principle. Some would say it’s THE most important leadership principle. I remember when I was still in the Canadian Army. One day, we were being addressed by our general and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, what is the most important principle of leadership?” Most of the officers in the room immediately shouted out, “Lead by example!”

Why is leading by example so important? I think there are three main reasons. The first is that people want to follow someone they believe is worthy of being followed. This means that the leader must demonstrate the qualities of character, commitment, and attitude that the organization or team espouses. In other words, the leader must set the standard and be a model for others. The best way to do this is by leading by example.

The second main reason leading by example is so important is that you can’t as a leader (or in general for that matter) ask someone to do something that you can’t or, worse, aren’t willing to do yourself. People tend to view leaders who say one thing and do another as hypocritical. It undermines morale and cohesion in the team, and it separates the leader from his or her followers.

The final reason, and perhaps the most important one, is that leadership means being in front, by definition. If you want someone to attack that hill, then you had better be close to the front so that others will follow you. If you want people to adopt certain behaviours in your organization, you have to be willing to adopt them yourself, and before all the others. This doesn’t mean you have to be the best at absolutely everything, but it does mean you have to be willing to move first, to take the same risks as everyone else, and be where the decision point is. You can’t do that from the safety of your bunker.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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