Leadership Barometer 70 Lead by Example

November 3, 2020

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Lead 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.”

Leaders have a tendency to rationalize their current actions based on the particular situation. 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 are compromising their position. Here is an extreme example of a Plant Manager to illustrate.

I once worked for a Plant Manager who was world class at this flaw. 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 one day and park in his “special spot” next the building. He then stepped over a safety cone and chain to get to the door of the building. He was aware of the fact that no work was going on at the time, and he was in a rush, but he was unaware that anybody saw his transgression.

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, and he did so but gave me a dirty look.

A third incident with this leader that really upset me 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.

The team reviewed the accident report with me and indicated they were ready to start up again. I asked if 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 until further fail-safe measures were in place. 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 administrative person said he was available at that time. What an awful signal to send the troops.

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

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.

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

Beyond these obvious atrocities, there are many 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.

In the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, he described what he called “Level 5 Leaders.” They were passionate people, but they were also humble. They were “more plowhorse than showhorse.”

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.