“Larry” was sitting there for at least 10 minutes staring at the computer screen trying to absorb the feedback and lessons from the Fundamental of Leadership business simulation experience. The best way for me to describe “Larry” is “Old School.” I loved having him in our program and at this moment I couldn’t help but feel his struggle and dare I say it, his “pain” of being a leader in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business world. But there he was just looking at the screen re-reading the feedback from the best practices leadership business simulation pursing his lips and shaking his head silently up and down in tacit agreement. Finally, after a few awkward moments, Larry spoke up and said, “Yup, I get it. This is great feedback. I’ve been thinking about leadership in a way that doesn’t exist anymore and this feedback helps explain why I’ve been getting the results from my team that I’ve been getting.” When I asked Larry to explain further he shared the following:
“Leading by example is dead. My expectation that all I have to do is just have to come in early, work hard, and go home late and the team will follow an outdated mental model. There are different tools that I need to learn to be effective in this evolved environment.”
It was an eye-opening experience for Larry and an eye-opening experience for me also as I’ve never heard those words stated so profoundly. Larry’s self-reflection got me thinking about this as a leadership lesson worth exploring and sharing. If Leading by Example is truly a dead leadership tactic, what killed it and what should leaders do about it?
Here are three things that in my opinion killed Leading by Example:
In the Virtual Workplace, Actions Can Be Missed and Never Seen
With more than 50% of the global workforce either working at home or working virtually, it’s almost impossible to lead through actions when others can’t see you. So what that you are in the office by 7am and stay late? With different time zones, different work patterns, and work overload to begin with, your people don’t really see it and can’t acknowledge it because it’s not directly in front of them or impacting them in any way that makes them feel like they need to be more dedicated.
The Work You Are Doing Is Different (And You Actually May Not be that Good at It)
Sure, Larry is old school, but the work he is currently doing isn’t. Disruptive technologies, new competitors, and new tools have changed the way work is being done and maybe Larry isn’t quite the same leader as he was 10 years ago which is why he called himself “Old School.” If this is the case, then the people Larry works with - including his direct reports - may not respect him and don’t want to “follow” a leader who may not know what he’s doing.
That’s How my Mom and Dad Used to Lead and it’s Not Inspiring
The intent of this blog is not to make the topic a generational thing, but there is some component of leading across generations that must be addressed. The concept of “Leading by Example” can be interpreted by some as an authoritative, top-down leadership method that was once used by Mom and Dad 25 years ago then they were in leadership roles. The methods may simply have limited relevance and because it’s what Mom once did when she was a leader of a business may not be that inspiring.
Ok, so there are three reasons why “Leading by Example” may be dead, but what are you going to do about it? Here are three quick counters to the three reasons:
- In virtual world, words, pictures, and media mean more than actions. Tell stories, be relevant, use different types of media to get your leadership story out there.
- When the work changes, you have to change. Get the skills you need to be current and up-to-date. Relying on the “old ways” may not cut it any longer.
- Don’t tell people you are leading by example and they should follow you because that’s the way you learned how to be a leader. Things are different and you need to do the two things above to make sure you are leading the best way possible.