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.


Leadership Barometer 50 Humility

May 15, 2020

Humility is a key characteristic for everyone to embrace. True humility is rarely seen in the ranks of leaders.

Ego, rather than humility, seems to be the more common trait in management circles. Let’s examine why this is and suggest some ideas to modify the pattern.

Anyone who has reached a leadership position has a tale to tell. He or she got there through a series of steps and events, some of them deserved and some of them just being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.

We can believe in synchronicity or nepotism, but still it usually takes a lot of energy and talent to get ahead. People in the organization may look at a newly appointed leader and remark how he “lucked into it,” but, as Earl Nightingale said in Lead The Field, “Luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.”

There should be some level of personal satisfaction for a leader when he or she emerges from the pack and is elevated. It is a kind of milestone that should be celebrated.

Upon reaching a higher level, the leader quickly becomes aware of an increase in power and influence. I once got a big promotion, and a sincere IT employee in the new organization started calling me “thou” and “thee” until I put an end to it.

It is very easy to let the trappings or perks of a higher level inflate one’s ego. There is nothing wrong with appreciating one’s self worth if it is kept in proper perspective and the person also appreciates and publicly acknowledges the worth of others.

Unfortunately, many leaders do lose perspective and start acting like jerks. Scott Adams, inventor of the Dilbert Cartoon Series would have needed to make a living in some other field if it were not for hubris on the part of leaders.

The role of humility in creating and maintaining trust in organizations was well documented by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Collins identified passion and humility as two common traits of the most effective leaders – he called them “level 5 leaders.”

It is easy to see the impact of a conceited leader on the organization. If the leader is so brilliant, then nobody else needs to look out for the rocks under the surface. People lose heart and will to help the cause.

This behavior forces the leader to be more all-knowing and perfect because real support is not there.

Warren Bennis put it this way, “One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say seems to be sheer hubris: leaders often believe they are wiser than all those around them.”

The literature on executive narcissism tells us that the self-confidence top executives need can easily blur into a blind spot, an unwillingness to turn to others for advice. Leaders who are convinced they are so macho and smart have a difficult time hearing what people are really saying.

I love James O’Toole’s observation, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”

It would be easy to say “don’t be too full of yourself” and show the benefits of humility. Unfortunately for the narcissist leader, changing the thought patterns and behaviors is extremely difficult. The problem is the blind spots that Bennis refers to.

Daniel Goleman also noticed the same tendency when he identified that leaders with low Emotional Intelligence have the most significant blind spots.

The issue of leader hubris is perhaps the most common schism that exists between the senior levels and the workers. If it is so important, what can we do about it?

Is there a kind of anti-hubris powder we can sneak into the orange juice of over inflated executives? Oh, if it were only that easy.

What we are talking about here is reeducating the boss with influence from below. We want to let him know that his own attitude is getting in the way of trust. Reeducating the boss is always tricky. It reminds me of the adage, “Never wrestle a pig…you get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

What do the sailors do if they are facing a Captain Bligh every day? Mutiny is one option, but it can get pretty bloody.

The road to enlightenment is through education. One suggestion is to form a kind of support network with the employees and leaders on the topic of leadership. Book clubs where employees along with their leaders take a lunch hour once a week to study the topic can begin a constructive dialog.

You can’t just march into the bosses office and say, “You are a total narcissist, knock it off and get down from your pedestal.” You need to use a water drop treatment with lots of Socratic Questions.

Shaping the thought patterns of a superior in the organization is a slow process, like changing the face of the planet in Arizona. Drop by drop and particle by particle, the sand and soil have been moved to reveal the Grand Canyon. Changing a leader’s approach might not take eons, but the slow shaping process is the same, only in human years.

Some leaders will remain clueless regardless. I know one leader who will go to her grave totally blind when it comes to her attitude about her own capability and superiority.

If she was reading this passage, she would be nodding her head affirmative and be 100% convinced that I was referring to somebody else, not her. Perhaps the only hope for a leader like this is some form of radical shock treatment in the form of a series of pink slips.

If you are a leader, try this little test. If you are inclined to think you don’t have any hubris and are a humble servant leader all the time, chances are you have some serious blind spots. Go and get it checked out!

If your mental picture is one of an imperfect person trying to learn more about how to lead, then you are probably okay.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.