When Your Character & Behavior Aren’t Enough
One thing I’ve learned as a presenter, teacher, business owner, and parent is that being a good example doesn’t make you a good leader.
Don’t get me wrong: Being a good example is necessary. Vital, in fact. Human beings (including very young ones) are quick to notice incongruity. If there’s a discrepancy between what you say and what you do, they go with what you do. “I know you said to do XYZ… but you don’t do it yourself!” You can teach and preach all day long, but if you don’t practice what you preach you create distrust, resentment, and eventually, mutiny.
So, yes. Be a good example. But that’s not the same as teaching, training, or leading. It’s a quirk of human nature that you can very quickly and easily pick up someone else’s bad habits, behaviors, and attitudes. The good ones, though? Man, developing those takes WORK.
How many parents discover their kids are bullies or racist and say, “You never learned that from me!” Just because you, as a parent or supervisor or executive, model work ethic or inclusion or practice excellent communication skills doesn’t mean others will pick up those values or skills by osmosis. A good example is not enough.
One of my daughters was exceedingly shy when she was young. She never made eye contact outside the family. She wouldn’t answer when people asked her a question. She hid behind me, clinging to my legs, in social situations. I figured she’d grow out of it. After all, no one else in the family behaved that way. Then one day, I suddenly realized she wasn’t growing out of it. I thought, “She needs me to coach her!” I had to teach her to do what I figured she’d pick up naturally.
As a leader you can’t just talk the talk… but you can’t just walk the walk either! Communication is a necessary first step. Here are three topics that require explicitness from you as a leader:
Explicitly state, “This is what we stand for.” Then, yes, of course, live up to it. Demonstrate those values in your daily life. But if you expect others in your organization or team or family to behave according to a set of values, they need to know what they are. Of course, this works best when people get to have a say in what those values are, but sometimes—for example, with a new hire—the values have been predetermined. Directly state them, define them, and then exemplify them.
Clearly say, “This is what I expect of you” and “This is what happens when expectations aren’t met.” Don’t beat around the bush or get lost in a murky gray area. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” Letting others know parameters gives them confidence and security.
As a kid, I remember getting in a lot of trouble for doing things I didn’t know were wrong. Some corporate cultures are like this, too. You do eventually pick up on the expectations, but it’s painful and humiliating and creates a culture of fear. You’re always wondering what the unspoken rules are! The more unambiguous you can be in stating expectations and consequences, the more you empower others to do good work.
Tell people, “This is how it’s done.” By all means, leave plenty of space for flexibility and improvement in your process. But don’t berate people for wasting time, reinventing the wheel, or doing it “wrong” if you haven’t taught or trained them. They may have watched you do it a dozen times. That doesn’t mean they know it. Best practices are rarely learned by osmosis. It takes attention and intention; in takes communication.
Don’t be shocked when others don’t emulate your excellent example. You can pick up a lot by watching the greats, when you’re watching intentionally to learn. It doesn’t happen automatically. Be direct and clear in your communication. And practice what you preach.