Leadership Barometer 10 Lead by Example

There are lots of ways you can assess the caliber of a leader quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Leads by Example

Leading by example sounds like a simple concept, yet many leaders struggle to do it in day to day operations. Reason: it is easy to fall into a trap of “do as I say, not as I do.” Of course, this is a deadly sin for any leader.

Most leaders would deny having a problem in this area, yet many of them really do not see how they often compromise their position. Here are three extreme examples by the same leader to illustrate my point.

Just a quick shortcut

I once knew a plant manager who was world class at this. He would rant and rave about following the “do not walk inside the barrier” signs when construction was happening in the plant. He wanted managers to consider firing any employee caught crossing a barrier.

Yet, I saw him coming to work early one morning and park in his special spot next to the building. He then stepped over a safety cone and chain to get to the main door rather than walk around to a side door.

He was aware of the fact that no work was going on at the time and was in a rush, but he was unaware that anybody saw his transgression. In other words, he thought he had gotten away with it, but he was wrong.

Wear your protective gear

This same manager insisted in having a shutdown and review any time there was a safety incident within the plant. That was laudable. During one such inspection following a safety incident, he was standing in the production area twirling the safety glasses we had given him around next to his face.

I politely told him to please put on his safety glasses. He did so but let me know by his body language that I had embarrassed him. My reaction? “Too bad!”

Show you really do care

A third incident with this leader that really fried my bacon was when we had a rather serious incident that could have caused a fatality. I ordered the operation shut down for a full investigation.

This was a large conveyor system for heavy materials that needed to be operated in complete darkness because the product being moved was photographic movie film. One of the interlocks to keep product separated had failed and an operator went in to clear a jam. He successfully cleared the jam but nearly got crushed by the incoming product afterward.

They reviewed the accident report with me and indicated they were ready to start up again. I asked how they could guarantee the same problem would not happen again in the future. Not receiving a suitable answer, I ordered a complete stand down of the operation and further fail safe measures. This was not popular with the employees who figured they could just be more careful.

After wrestling with the issues for a full day, the operations and maintenance personnel came up with a solution that really would guarantee the problem never happened again.

I called a special meeting with the production people and the Plant Manager to go over the problem and the resolution. We had the meeting, but the Plant Manager never showed up, even though his administration person said he was available at that time. What an awful signal to send the troops. Apparently he had something better to do.

After I wrote a blistering e-mail, I was on his “blackball list” until he was fired by upper management for insubordination and lying.

People notice

The point of these examples is that people really do notice what leaders do. When they say one thing and then do something more expedient, there is no way to command respect. It should be grounds for termination of any manager.

But lowly employees do not have the power to actually fire their leader, so they just do it mentally and write him off as a lost cause. There is no trust for the manager.

By the way, if you asked this Plant Manager if he had ever sent mixed signals on safety, he would totally and vehemently deny it. He was honestly unaware of his stupid actions, as is the case with most managers who are duplicitous.

Positive side

Beyond these obvious atrocities, there are positive things leaders can do. When you go out of your own comfort zone to do something positive, people notice that as well. If a leader cuts her vacation short by 2 days in order to support an important plant tour with a new customer, that really registers with people.

If a manager goes out and buys a gift certificate with his own money to thank an employee who went way beyond the expected performance, word of it gets around. When a manager helps clean up a conference room after a long meeting, it sends a signal.

These ideas are not rocket science, yet many managers fail at this basic stuff. You need to seek out ways to go above and beyond what people expect of you and never, ever violate a rule you expect others to follow.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.

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