Home Topics Success Leading by example: 4 elements of true inspiration

Leading by example: 4 elements of true inspiration

Do you remember being a kid in school and catching yourself looking out the window and worrying in a distant place? You may even have gotten into trouble for coming up with a great vision.

Ironically, the kind of thing that could get a 12-year-old reprimanded from a teacher is a common practice among the greatest executives I’ve ever seen. The best leaders always dream. The author Hans Finzel rightly remarked, I believe, that “the higher you are in leadership, the more your work is about the future.”

At the same time, real leaders are practical enough to know that a vision is useless without action. They are stewards of their vision. The temptation may be to simply communicate this vision, but the best of the best will communicate it clearly, creatively, and continuously as they go beyond communication. The leader must also live the vision. He or she will effectively model the vision to really bring the picture to life for the entire team.

Good leaders understand that they lead by example and others will follow them, for better or for worse. Your behavior can inspire others to do great things that fit your vision perfectly, or to move in circles.

The law of the image, as I call this principle, is perhaps most obvious in times of chaos and uncertainty. In challenging times, consider these insights on how you can be the model of energy, passion, and motivation for the people who follow you.

1. Followers are always watching you.

If you are a parent, you have probably already established that your children are always watching what you do. You don’t miss anything! Your children learn more from what they see of you than from anywhere else. As parents, Margaret and I recognized this early on. No matter what we taught our children, they insisted on acting like us. How frustrating!

Just as children watch their parents and emulate them, so do employees watch their bosses. When the bosses are late, the employees feel that they can too. When the bosses cut corners, employees cut corners. People do what people see.

Followers may doubt what their leaders say, but they usually believe their actions. And they imitate it.

2. It’s easier to teach than to do.

One of my earliest challenges as a manager was to raise my standard of living to the level of my teaching. I still remember the day I decided not to teach anything I didn’t try to live. It was a difficult decision, but as a young leader I learned to accept the law of the image.

Author Norman Vincent Peale stated, “Nothing is more confusing than people who give good advice and who set a bad example.” I would say a related thought is also true: nothing is more convincing than people who give good advice and a good one Give an example.

3. We should work to change ourselves before changing others.

To improve team performance, leaders need to act as change agents. However, a great danger to good leadership is the temptation to change others without first making changes to yourself.

As a manager, I am the first person I have to lead. The first person I should change is me. My quality standards should be higher for myself than those I have set for others. To remain a credible leader, I must always work first, hardest, and longest to change myself.

To differently lead by example, we send others a blurry picture of leadership. If we work to improve ourselves and make this our main job, it will be more likely to inspire others to follow.

4. The most precious gift a leader can give is a good example.

Above all, employees want managers whose beliefs and actions match. They want good models that lead from the front.

Leadership is more caught than taught. How do you “catch” leadership? It’s contagious: you get it when you watch good leaders in action! The majority of leaders arise because of the impact that incumbent leaders who modeled and tutored the leadership had on them.

When I think about my leadership journey, I am fortunate to have excellent models from whom I have “grasped” various aspects of leadership – perseverance from my father, encouragement from Ken Blanchard, vision from Bill Bright, and intensity from Bill Hybel, um to name just a few. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer remarked: “Example is leadership.”

Now let’s step into our daydreams of great leadership and start acting.

This article originally appeared in the March / April 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by mimagephotography / Shutterstock

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John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named SUCCESS’s First Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a not-for-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million executives in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek; Best-selling author Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.


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