Leading by Example is Not Leadership

How many times have we heard the term “leading by example”?  Whether the topic is sports, social interaction, ethical business behavior, or the like, the idea is that we can all learn leadership by observing someone else do a particular thing well.  I take issue with this idea, as doing something well is not leading, nor does it communicate or teach the tenets of leadership.

My convictions about this misnomer were reinforced recently on a sailing trip in the BVI. I had the good fortune to celebrate a birthday with a small group friends.  One friend in particular is notorious for saying “be a leader” – to his children, his colleagues, and to his friends.  But I’ve never heard him espouse the first idea about what a leader, or leadership is.  A case in point:  one day our group elected to hike on a smaller island which was criss-crossed with what were essentially goat paths.   They were narrow, often overgrown with brush, and covered in loose scrabble rock.  In short, these paths were not easy to navigate.   The group of eight set out on the paths toward the peak of the island where we knew there would be some tremendous vistas.  Suddenly the friend who likes to talk about leadership shot off on a run.  He is a good athlete and very proud of how hard he can push himself.

In a short amount of time, our friend had disappeared ahead of us.  I am confident that my friend thought he was demonstrating leadership as he blazed a trail ahead.  However, given the day was hot, the hike vigorous, and not everyone in the group was a confident hiker, the better leader would be the one who stayed with the group to ensure everyone’s safety.  Not only was my friend not leading, he had completely separated himself from the team’s dynamics and needs.  Further, if my friend had himself become injured, he had gotten so far ahead of the group that it would have been some time before we could have caught up to him and provided assistance.  Ironically, one of the women in our group did twist her ankle on the descent — thankfully just a light sprain — but my friend was nowhere nearby to assist our remaining group in getting the woman down to the shore.

I dearly love and admire my friend, but I do not think he really understands leadership.  As we’ve discussed in previous Musher posts, Musher Management, and leadership, is about ensuring the team has the right direction and resources to successfully complete the mission.   Admonishments to “go faster,” “work harder” or “suck it up” are not leading.   They may stimulate someone to break through a boundary or overcome a set-back, but that is not leadership.

I challenge you to think about how you demonstrate leadership in your personal and professional lives.  Do you assume that others admire you because of what you do, or because of the active investment you take in advancing their own success? Mushing is about leading as you follow — preparing the team to win, and then managing that team across the terrain — not blazing a trail ahead.

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5 Responses to Leading by Example is Not Leadership

  1. Kurt Ekert says:

    right on Dave

  2. Bryan Conway says:

    Wise words Dave and a great illustration of your point.

  3. Matt Elliott says:

    Leading by example is leadership. One must define however what example is to be set. By charging ahead in the situation you described the wrong example was set by your friend. By staying back and helping the rest of the group, one would be setting the right example. People see this, and ultimately gain respect for that individual because they were looking out for the welfare of others. Is that not leadership? In my opinion it is. Putting the welfare of others before yourself is a major part of leadership.

  4. frank says:

    Either you lead by example or you start snarling “work harder” and “suck it up.” Your analogy is simplistic and flawed.

    • Dave Falter says:

      Frank, I’m not sure you’ve embraced the spirit of the blog post. What I was saying is that my friend exhibited a poor conception of leadership because his only tools were to admonish others to “work harder” or “suck it up”. I am not saying these are good leadership principles at all! So if you think my message is simplistic and flawed, I’d ask that you kindly re-read the post. Thanks for reading! DAF

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