Should Leaders Lead by Example?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 24th November 2016

Whether you lead one person, a team, or a whole organisation, you’ll be conscious of the fact that your actions often set the precedent. Those who report to you will be marking not just what you say, but what you do, when deciding on their own approach to work.

A common conundrum, then, is whether it’s enough to rely on clear instructions, or whether you need to roll up your sleeves and demonstrate what you demand.

Here’s the bad news… you don’t have a choice.


All leaders lead by example, whether they mean to or not. People watch leaders and draw conclusions from their words, actions, and even body-language. You’re an example every minute of the day.

What example are you setting?

Perhaps the more important question concerns what exactly you’re an example of. What messages are you sending out through the example you’re setting?

Quite a few of the leaders I’ve heard pontificating about ‘leading by example’ have been an example of many things, including self-delusion, bullying, focusing on the numbers at the exclusion of any human consideration, being unreasonably over-rewarded while others struggle to make ends meet, driving for targets that only represent a small proportion of the things that really matter, using bonuses as the only form of motivation, hiding away in endless meetings instead of providing a human face to their leadership…. and many more. They then expect miraculously to have colleagues who are gracious, satisfied, and able to engage and motivate those around them.

When I’ve spoken about this at conferences or in articles, I’ve had many leaders come up to me to agree and cite examples of leaders they know who are poor examples, while remaining blissfully unaware that they do many of these things themselves.

The consequences of double standards

The problem with the “do as I say, not as I do” approach is that is has a resounding impact on your organisation and its stakeholders. Don’t assume that your behaviours will be excused and forgotten because of your position. In fact, the more senior you are, the more your actions will be scrutinised, and the more will be expected of you from others.

Not only will your double standards result in you becoming thought of as a hypocrite, but they will breed resentment that spreads like wildfire, and with this a lack of engagement, motivation, and productivity.

Actions speak far louder than words, and no amount of positive internal PR and employee incentive schemes can undo the damage done by hypocrisy. The only solution is to embody what you expect from others, right from being on time to showing kindness and positivity.

There is no such thing as a perfect leader, and I’m certainly not suggesting that I speak from any kind of moral high-ground here. I’ve behaved like an idiot on many occasions, and fallen foul of most of these failings many times over in my 35 years of leadership. Anyone who thinks they haven’t probably just ticked the ‘self-deluded’ box at the top of my list. The big question is: are you aware of it? Are you seeking to improve? Are you mindful of your actions, behaviour, words, and impact on others?

Being mindful of your impact

So, if you’re ready to admit that you’re not always the perfect role model, what can you do about it? You probably already have a good idea of the kinds of behaviours and values you want to encourage within your team or organisation. The tricky part is consistently modelling them.

Mindfulness is invaluable when it comes to challenging your own behaviours, as it develops better self-awareness. I find it extremely helpful to try to take ‘third position’, and observe myself as I perform my leadership role. Sometimes I find myself stopping in the middle of doing something (or, better still, just before I do something) to ask myself, “what on earth are you doing?”, as I see the many ripples that could result from the words I’m about to use, or the decision I’m about to take.

The best I can say of myself is that I try to stay present in the moment, never to act without thinking, and to reflect deeply on everything I do and say, so that I can have an increasingly positive impact on the people and performance around me. I try, every day, to get better.

Do you?

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