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6 Ways to Lead by Example

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January 19, 2021

By Rowan Van Dyk

6 Ways to Lead by Example

5 min

I presume by now, if you are in any type of leadership position, you will have heard the statement “Lead By Example” so many times that you want to throw up. The sad fact is that this, whether it has become cliched or not, will always be the back-bone of any leader. If you do not set the example, then your team will not trust or follow you. In every great team or organization, there are always those leaders that blaze the trail and lead by example. These leaders focus on the correct way to do things and never stop putting in the effort, even in the face of challenges.

In these challenging times we live in the team will look to you the leader for guidance and clarity on the way to follow. In Matthew 16 verse 13 to 20 (NIV), Jesus asks His disciples who the people say He is… there are several theories that are put forward but the He asks the disciples who THEY say He is and Peter answers “You are the Christ”. The lesson here is that even though the people who were following the crowd still identified Jesus, in their eyes, as a good man, it was the people closest to Him, His team of disciples, that recognized Him for who he was.

The question then I would ask you as the leader is “who do they say you are”? Does your team recognize you for the leader you are supposed to be? Are you setting the correct example as the leader? Is your example one they would want to follow?

Some people are natural born leaders and can easily lead by example. Others however, need help learning how to connect with their team on a personal and professional level to get them to produce at their full potential. Being a leader that is trust-worthy, is hardworking and committed, has integrity and supports the team through proper guidance will boost team morale and confidence immensely. Let’s look at a few steps to follow to improve your qualities as a leader in the workplace.

Go the Extra Mile

There are many attributes of a great leader, but the first and foremost is being part of the team by taking the first step or initiative with work-related projects. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5 verse 41, Jesus instructs His disciples “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (GNB). Leaders go above and beyond their job description; they are always trying to learn and improve themselves. Being the leader requires that you be involved in the working process and have an understanding of each team member’s role and how it impacts production and the objectives of the team. When you work well with your team members, you build trust and credibility as someone who is willing to go the extra mile to understand the functions of every one’s job. This will help you become a responsible member of your team and will demonstrate to your team that you are willing to roll your sleeves up and assist and support the team outside of your role as the leader.

Take a hard look at yourself and the work you’ve done. Is there room to improve and grow as a leader? If you constantly evaluate yourself, and even get your team to evaluate you as a leader, your team will notice your efforts to improve and this will motivate them to follow suit.

Have Integrity

Leadership very often hinges on reputation and Warren Buffet once commented that it takes your 20 – 25 years to build up your reputation and only 5 minutes to destroy it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that leadership is a popularity contest, but your reputation with your team could be in tatters if they no longer trust you. If you lose their trust it will take you many years to systematically gain it back again. In Proverbs 20 verse 7 (NKJV) Solomon tells us that “The righteous man walks in his integrity; His children are blessed after him”. So, if you have integrity as a leader, you will reap the rewards not only in your own life but you will also create an environment for your team to prosper and do well.

Integrity also manifests in the way you talk to your team. Honesty and transparency are vital elements of integrity. Everyone interprets information and acts on it in different ways. Some can handle constructive criticism, while others may see it as a personal attack on their intelligence and character and this could impact their mood negatively. Then there are those who constantly need to know how they are performing. Being a leader doesn’t mean choosing to be “nice” or not, it means being honest and giving your team with feedback that they can use to improve their skills, habits and performance. Being honest is about understanding the type of person you are talking to and knowing how to reach them on a serious level. Honesty, transparency and integrity go hand in hand. Integrity basically means that there is no Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and that the way you are in your private life is the same as the way you are in your work life. Your team is only as strong as its weakest link, and if one person needs help, be honest and open with them, tell them the truth and set realistic expectations for them to improve.

Have Empathy

Empathy plays a very important role in being an effective leader and will become ever more valuable in a world where the onslaught of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before. The leader that strives to understand and share the feelings of each team member is far more successful than the leader that simply discards their feelings and concerns.

Giving trusted co-workers the benefit of the doubt by assuming the good in them goes a long way toward instilling loyalty and trust in you from your team. Allowing workers to make mistakes and then helping them to learn from the mistake to grow and not make the same mistakes, is what empathy is all about. By practicing empathy your team feels safe to approach you with problems and will not hide things from you because they fear you.

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around you. People with empathy are good at recognizing the feelings of others, even when those feelings may not be obvious. As a result, empathetic people are usually excellent at managing relationships and listening and relating to others. Leaders that display empathy avoid stereotyping and judging too quickly, and they live their lives in a very open, honest way. The most effective way to practice empathy is to allow your team to slip up from time to time so that they can gain experience from the slip-ups. Take the lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in chapter 2 verses 3 and 4 where he tells them “Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble towards one another, always considering others better than yourselves, and lookout for one another’s interests and not just your own” (GNB).

Compassion stems from empathy and compassion is a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. Compassion is more vigorous than empathy and the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. In ethical terms, the Golden Rule passed down through the ages is: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” Luke 6 verse 31 (NIV). Compassion is considered in all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues.

Forgiveness, a companion of both empathy and compassion, is the process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. Forgiveness may be considered simply in terms of the person who forgives, in terms of the person forgiven and/or in terms of the relationship between the forgiver and the person forgiven. In some contexts, it may be granted without any expectation of compensation, and without any response on the part of the offender (for example, one may forgive a person who is dead). In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, apology, and/or restitution, or even just ask for forgiveness, in order for the wronged person to believe they are able to forgive.

Forgiveness is described as the right thing to do even when the law tells you don’t have to. When Jesus was hanging on the cross He could so easily have condemned us all and had everyone that ill-treated Him punished severely…instead He begged that they be forgiven as recorded in Luke’s gospel chapter 23 verse 34.

Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern-day traditions and practices of forgiveness. However, throughout the ages, philosophers have studied forgiveness apart from religion. The need to forgive is widely recognized by the public, but they are often at a loss for ways to accomplish it. Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments. One study has shown that the positive benefit of forgiveness is similar whether it was based upon religious or secular counselling as opposed to a control group that received no forgiveness counselling.

Empathy, compassion and forgiveness are the cornerstones of a great leader and you could also include humility.

Be Humble

Truly great leaders need to be humble. Being humble does not mean that you cave into any adversity or that you do not exert your authority as required. No, being humble implies that as a leader you are often times prepared to take the back seat and let the team members who have more proficient skills in a particular area apply their skills to complete the task or solve the problem. Being humble means that you as the leader accept that you are not necessarily the expert in every situation and that the reason you have a team of followers is that they too possess certain skills. If you harness those skills you can better achieve your end goal or objective Humility also can include servant leadership. The assumption is that if leaders focus on the needs and desires of followers, followers will reciprocate through increased teamwork, deeper engagement, and better performance. In the Gospel of John chapter 13 from verse 3 – 5 (NIV) “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” Jesus showed humility as a leader even though He knew that He had the authority as the leader.

Through being humble, the leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. The leader seeks to listen receptively to what is being said. When listening, ensure that you listen to what your team have to say; communication is what drives a successful team and treating every employee’s comments with understanding and compassion will help establish commodities of trust. Listening is a vital part of communication that is often overlooked. Where employees are struggling, listen to the obstacles they have to overcome and how it may be affecting not only their work life, but their social and personal life as well. Listen to their comments and concerns as an opportunity to improve functions. The best way to listen is to listen in order to understand and not as is common practice, listen to formulate an answer.

A great leader strives to understand and empathize with others. Many people have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts and the humble leader recognizes that they also have an opportunity to help heal those they come into contact with. General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the humble leader. The humble-leader seeks to convince others rather than enforce compliance and  seeks to nurture their abilities to look at a problem from a conceptualizing perspective that means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. The humble leader understands the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. A humble leader emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion rather than control in practicing stewardship and commitment to the growth of the team. A humble leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the team and seeks to identify some means for building community among those who work within the team.

Remember, if you are a humble leader, it will be impossible for you to micro-manage your team.

Be Committed

Being committed means that you are “all in” and that you are there for the long haul. It reminds me of a story I once heard as a young man that tells of a chicken and a pig walking past a restaurant advertising bacon and eggs for breakfast where upon the chicken turns to the pig and says “I am contributing to the welfare of others daily “… to which the pig replies “you may be contributing but I am fully committed to the cause”. Commitment, as I said is an “all in” situation, and commitment requires determination.

Another example of full commitment is found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 22 verse 42 where Jesus was praying shortly before His crucifixion, and He asks God “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (ESV). Even though Jesus knew the pain and suffering that was to follow, and He would have liked to not go through with it, He was fully committed to the end goal and accepted the results for the benefit of the team (His disciples and us).  

As mentioned earlier, commitment often requires determination. Determination is the tenacity to not give up on your end goal no matter what the people have to say or what the consequences may be. You need to have the same tenacity as a bull-terrier that has locked its jaws after biting onto something and that it then takes and immense amount of effort to get it to let go. There will always be someone who does not see the benefit and success of your efforts the way you do. People will find all types of excuses to attempt to convince you that what you’re doing or attempting is wrong – the project won’t work – you’re too young – you’re too old - you do not have the experience necessary to get the job done. Don’t let other people who do not have the same vision and passion you have pull you down or let you lose focus of your goal. You are responsible for the team and your own goals, so stick it put and be fully committed.

Take the Blame

Criticism is common in the workplace because individuals are doing all they can to save their own reputation, perception, and position. As a leader you need to set the example and understand that any problem in the workplace tests the fibre of the leader, and of the team members, and by maintaining a positive work environment success can be achieved. As the leader you have to take responsibility for situations that you may not even be directly linked to, but set the example through your commitment to the end goal, taking it upon yourself to find the resolution. When you make a mistake, acknowledge the slip-up and accept any blame or repercussions that may follow. This is a practice also referred to as being accountable – no “passing the buck”. In Mark 15 verses 3-5 Jesus is falsely accused – “The leading priests accused Jesus of many things. So Pilate asked Jesus another question. Pilate said, "You can see that these people are accusing you of many things. Why don't you answer?" But Jesus still did not answer. Pilate was very surprised at this” (NLT). Jesus does not argue or answer back, He allows them to make their false accusations because He has the bigger picture in mind. The overall objective of the team is the bigger picture and as the leader you need to keep focused on the end goal and sometimes take a couple of knocks along the way for the sake of the team.

A leader understands that mistakes will be made and are going to continue to be made. What makes a leader special is their willingness to learn from their mistakes and make the necessary adjustments to prevent the same mistake from happening twice. When you make a mistake and own up to it, it not only sends a message to the team that they too accept responsibility for their workplace mistakes, but it allows for growth through learning and success can be reached. Owning up to your mistakes and learning from them not only provides experience, but it builds character, for you and your team, and establishes your leadership.

So remember, if you want too be successful as a leader, learn to set the proper example for your team to follow. Set the example in such a way that they will want to emulate your example in their own lives and work.