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What Does Lead by Example Mean? & Why Should You Do It?

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Read Time: 9 min

When you’re thinking about leadership, one tip you’ll often hear is to lead by example. But what exactly does this mean, and how do you do it? 

What does it mean to lead through example?What does it mean to lead through example?What does it mean to lead through example?
What does it mean to lead by example? (Image source: Envato Elements)

In this article, we’ll answer some common questions about leading through example, so you can work out what this means for you.

Leading Through Example Defined

So what's the meaning of "lead by example". Leading through example is often defined as behaving in a way that shows others how to behave. To put it another way, what you do rather than what you say is used as a guide for others. 

When thinking about leadership qualities, some people have a lead by example leadership style. Those leaders will model everything from how to work effectively to how to manage teams, and much more. 

For example, if a company is starting a recycling scheme, those who lead by example will let employees see them using recycling bins and checking regularly on the progress of the scheme. People who don't lead by example will implement financial cutbacks at the company, but they'll still buy themselves a new luxury car. 

Why Is It Important to Lead by Example?

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Many effective leaders use a lead by example leadership style. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Here are some of the reasons why it's important to lead by example. 

1. Models Ethical Leadership

One of the most important ones is that it showcases your own integrity and ethics as a leader. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

"It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself."

When you lead by example, you show others in the workplace that you're willing and able to do the tasks you've set them, and how to accomplish those tasks.

2. Creates Alignment

As part of this, leading through example creates alignment between what you say and what you do, unlike the luxury car example cited above. If you're asking employees to cut budgets and they see you also making cutbacks, they'll respect the fact that you're also making sacrifices. They'll be more willing to make those same sacrifices themselves. This also creates a company culture of mutual respect, which helps the whole team work together more effectively.

3. Boosts Morale

Another reason why it's important to lead by example is that this boosts morale on the team. A key part of ethical, aligned leadership is communicating with your team, so they know what you're doing and why. This makes it easier for them to feel involved and makes for a happy team environment.

4. Develops Future Leaders

When you lead by example, it's a powerful way of showing the leadership skills you value. Every interaction is a chance to:

  • develop how you communicate with
  • listen to and learn from others
  • take responsibility
  • show your emotional intelligence

Not only does this approach create strong relationships but the benefits can cascade down throughout your organization. Learn more about emotional intelligence in this tutorial:

5. Increases Productivity

Companies that have a lead by example leadership style are productive companies. Unlike companies where there's poor leadership, leading by example increases employee engagement and productivity. This makes it easier for companies to keep staff, delight customers and reach key milestones.

What Happens When You Don’t Lead by Example?

Since a lead by example leadership style has many benefits, it follows that failure to lead by example has significant disadvantages for organizations. If you've ever been unimpressed by the phrase "do as I say, not as I do", you'll know why.  

Poor leadership leads to high staff turnover, as employees feel less connected and less loyal to the business. For the same reason, staff morale and productivity tend to be low. So, it's not good business to avoid leading by example. These days, both employees and customers expect businesses to operate in alignment with their values and to be socially responsible - that's why it's important to lead by example. 

5 Examples of Good Leadership

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Good leadership leads to positive results. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Now that we've looked at the meaning of lead by example, let's look at this leadership style in action. Here are some leaders who are known to lead by example: 

1. Dan Price Doubled Staff Pay

Gravity Payments founder and CEO Dan Price cut his own salary of $1 million to increase the minimum salary for the company's 120 employees to $70,000 a year. Price did this after determining that this was the number most people needed to be relatively free from financial worry. The move has paid off as staff members have been able to reduce debt, buy homes, start families and more, and the company has remained successful. 

2. Nelson Mandela Learned From His Dad

Everyone knows Nelson Mandela was a tremendous leader, but have you ever wondered how he became one. According to American Express, he learned his approach to leadership from his dad, Chief Jongintaba. The chief would hold meetings to which people from every part of society was invited, would listen to their opinions and would be the last to speak. Nelson Mandela operated in a similar fashion. 

3. Stacey Abrams Helped Others Win Elections

When Stacey Abrams failed to win a party nomination for governor, she set about tackling the voting system. She did that by launching Fair Fight and setting out to register 800,000 voters in Georgia. Importantly, Stacey Abrams didn't lead from the back, she was right out there talking to people. This resulted in more people having a voice, which affected the outcome of the 2020 US elections in Georgia. Her approach is outlined in this quote from an interview with Conferences for Women:

"I was raised by my parents to believe that if you saw a problem, your job isn’t to whine about it. You can for a little bit, but not for very long. Your job is to fix it. And for me, fixing the problem meant that we had to tackle the root issue, which was access to democracy in Georgia."

4. Buffer Implemented a Four-Day Workweek

I've been fascinated with leadership at Buffer since I saw how they handled a crisis with accountability and transparency. A more recent example of leading by example was their decision to focus on employees' happiness and wellbeing by shifting to a four-day workweek. The move was led by the CEO, trialed for a few months. The company has assessed pros and cons at every stage. It has now decided to keep it permanently, as 91% of employees are happier. 

5. Kristen Hadeed Sees Leadership as a Responsibility

According to Inc, founder of Student Maid, Kristin Hadeed, changed her approach to leadership after she noticed high staff turnover. Hadeed became a servant leader, providing training and guidance to employees, and modeling her values (for example, offering free cleaning services to cancer patients). She now shows others how to make an impact by leading by example. 

The examples above showcase different people's approaches to leading by example. Since there's no one size fits all model, it's up to you to find your own path. The next section provides some issues to consider.

How to Lead by Example

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Do you know how to lead by example? (Image source: Envato Elements)

So, what does lead by example mean in practice? Here are some tips to help you lead by example in your organization.

  1. Only ask people to do things you’re also willing to do. As we saw in the example above, this builds trust with your employees. This also shows that you value your team members.
  2. Pay attention to your own behavior and follow the rules you've set out for others. This shows integrity and is a great way to lead by example. 
  3. Think about the behavior you want to see and model that. How you lead can help mold and motivate future leaders within your organization.
  4. Improve your leadership skills. If you know you need to work on communication, do that, so that you can show others the best way to communicate with the team. Being open to team feedback is one example of this. 
  5. Be open and be willing to be vulnerable. Admitting mistakes and weaknesses is another way to build trust with your team, plus the way you handle them can serve as an example for others. 
  6. Plan ahead. Not only is this another way of leading through example, but it encourages your team to be equally organized. 

Management30 has several examples of questions you can ask yourself to assess whether you're truly leading by example. For example, you can consider:

  • What behavior do you want to encourage?
  • How often do you model that behavior yourself?
  • How can you encourage that behavior in the team?
  • Is there anything you need to change yourself to make this happen?

Applying Leadership Principles in Your Life

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You can learn to lead by example if you follow the right principles. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Of course, when you think about what it means to lead by example, don't forget about your personal life. Your example can influence friends and family members. In particular, parents often lead through example, as they model the behavior they want their children to emulate. 

Some common ways to lead by example in your own life include living in integrity and asking people to do only what you’re also willing to do. This approach can help you build warm, trusting and harmonious relationships.

Showcase Your Leadership With Excellent Presentations

As a leader, it's likely that you'll have to showcase your leadership approach and values with an engaging presentation. While this article focused on building leading through example skills, you can get the tools you need to build eye-catching leadership presentations from Envato Elements or Graphic River. 

Envato Elements: Millions of Creative AssetsEnvato Elements: Millions of Creative AssetsEnvato Elements: Millions of Creative Assets
Choose between millions of creative assets with Envato Elements.

There's something for everyone at Envato Elements. As well as presentation templates, you'll find graphics, web templates and much more, all available for one low price. You can also find appealing presentation templates for one off use at GraphicRiver. Explore the options today to up your leadership presentation game. 

Learn More About Leadership

Want to improve your leadership skills even more? Check out some of our other leadership tutorials:

Want to Lead by Example? Start Today!

You've learned about what leading through example means, and why it's important to integrate this approach to leadership in your organization. You've also seen standout examples of the lead by example leadership style and know how you can apply this both in business and in life. Over to you, to start leading by example today!

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in February 2022. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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