Ancient French legend tells the story of a monastery in France that was known throughout Europe for the exceptional leadership of a man known only as Brother Leo. Several monks went on a pilgrimage to meet this extraordinary man to learn from him. As they began their journey, they almost immediately began to argue over who should do certain chores. On the third day of their travels, they met another monk also going to the monastery. He joined them, but didn’t participate in the bickering and did his chores dutifully. When the others would fight about which chores to do, he would simply volunteer to do them himself. On the last day of their journey, others began to follow his example and the bickering stopped. When the monks reached the monastery, they asked to see Brother Leo. The man who greeted them laughed: “But our brother is among you!” He pointed to the man who had joined them on their journey.

Leaders must lead with their actions as well as through their words. Leaders can effectively translate intention into reality by acting on the concepts and messages they teach and the things they say to those around them. Leadership is the act of setting the right example for those who follow. Leadership is about actively demonstrating your belief, not just talking about it. People who say one thing, but do another, eventually lose credibility.

Navy SEALs are trained to be leaders, regardless of age or rank. They are trained to earn trust. People truly follow only those they trust. One of the best ways to build trust with followers is to lead by example, as the Navy SEAL Creed confirms: “I serve with honour on and off the battlefield … I lead by example in all situations”. “Leading by example” can possibly be entrenched through the following:

  • Set an impeccable standard of excellence and live it – establish high expectations at the outset and model the expected behaviour yourself. Be a showcase of excellence. Leaders’ actions set an unspoken standard about what is appropriate and what is not. Through observation, followers learn about acceptable behaviour. They imitate the actions of the leader.
  • Deliver on any promises made – competent leadership requires an ability to deliver results. Rhetoric has little value if outcomes are essential.
  • Develop meaningful relationships – to embed the value of your people in their minds and nurture these relationships, key listening, communication and decision-making skills need to be acquired by the leader. Treat your employees fairly and well.
  • Promote collaboration – strategic cooperation is essential to build high-performance teams. Employees often produce better quality outputs when collaborating. Make teamwork an attractive dynamic in the work environment. This not only enhances trust, but reduces burnout and the silo effect.
  • Resolve conflict effectively and swiftly – approaching any conflict situations proactively sends signals that you care, but requires thoughtful intervention. Disagreements will transpire and usually get resolved naturally, but persistent hostility should not be tolerated. Facilitate resolution and conclusion to the issue with some degree of urgency.
  • Respect the chain of command – a sure way of causing structural deterioration, fostering confusion and damaging morale is to bypass your direct reports. Honour the roles that people play at every level in the organisation. Empower people to perform their respective roles.
  • Consider your words carefully – actions do speak louder than words, but words can have a direct impact on the culture and environmental wellness. Show support, be positive and encouraging.
  • Get your hands dirty – you don’t have to be the most advanced technician on the team, but you do need to know the business and industry thoroughly. Work alongside the team to develop them and produce great results.
  • Listen to the team – stop and listen. If all the members have been trained well, you have a whole team of experts to turn to for advice. Get feedback regularly.
  • Support and stretch the team – facilitate growth. Show your commitment to expand everyone’s reach by prioritising opportunities for enrichment. Do not micro-manage, but expand on the vision and mission and then set the team free to innovate.
  • Take responsibility – blame costs you your credibility, keeps team members on the defensive and ultimately sabotages real growth. Be courageous, taking calculated risks that demonstrate commitment to a larger purpose.
  • Be consistent – fluctuating moods and uncontrolled emotions don’t engender confidence. Evenness and fairness are essential ingredients of great leadership.

Leading (and living) by example takes strength of character and a firm commitment to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way and for the right reasons. If the leader consistently behaves in this way, trust develops and team members feel secure. John Maxwell noted: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way”. Lead by example.

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