“Leading by example” is no trite phrase.
People are inspired by positive examples. The average American cannot name their congressional representative, but they know the name and story of Mother Teresa. Few people were inspired enough to pack their bags and live a life of servitude in Calcutta, but Mother Teresa’s sacrifices made many treat their fellow man with more dignity and grace.
Managers have a spectrum of tools for getting employees to do what needs doing. All to often, managers lean on authority – direction, intimidations, bullying – which inspires nobody. When directed and not inspired, employees will work the minimum number of hours and make the least amount of effort required to keep their jobs. Conversely, an inspired employee can’t wait to get to work, will be highly motivated, infinitely creative, and work until the task is done very well.
The type of employee you have is a reflection on you. The example you set and the integrity you demonstrate determine how inspired your team is. Here are a number of ways you inspire and lead by example:
- Being totally honest and transparent no matter what: Trust is the foundation of every relationship. A lack of trust breeds a lack of everything else. Trust then becomes an imperative in the workplace. When you are openly honest, even when it hurts your own prospects, you sow the seeds of trust and that in turn grows a garden of commitment by your employees. Dishonesty is an herbicide in that same garden.
- Be a willing listener: Some people listen unwillingly, and it shows. The speaker feels marginalized and unimportant. People who feel like that simply do not care enough to try. When listening, absorb everything the person is saying, including how they are saying it. Understand their communication holistically, including emotional nuances. When you do, your employees feel that you genuinely care… because you do.
- Be their friend: Some folks say to not get too close to your people. I have found the opposite is true. Think of someone you know and like, who has shown a true interest in you. Next, think of a casual acquaintance. Now imagine both of them asking you to help them move. Who would you help haul a sofa down a flight of stairs?
- Praise often and genuinely: I do not mean inauthentic, smarmy compliments. I mean watch what your employees do and be sincerely grateful for jobs well done. It is gratitude that makes praise authentic.
- Be humble, not arrogant: Humility is the modest view of one’s own importance. The fact is that you, as a manager, will only be as successful as your team makes you. That means your employees are more important than you are, at least in terms of corporate performance. Lording over those who will make or break you is arrogant and will lead to you being humbled the hard way.
- Manage by walking around: Leadership is getting things done through people. If you are not connecting with your people often, in person, in their environment, then you cannot know their issues, their concerns, and their problems. Getting out of your office and onto the shop floor will make employees feel you are part of their world because you are.
- Set the example of work ethic you expect from your employees: This does not mean suffering 12-hour work days. This means demonstrating the qualities you want to see from your employees, be it precision, innovation, frugality, or even politeness. All elements that involve work are part of the ethic and will not be held dear by your employees unless they see it in you.
- Dress in the manner that you expect employees to dress: I ran a semiconductor company, and many of our employees wore “bunny suits” because they worked in an ultra-clean environment. These exceptions aside, people will adopt the local dress code. You set the tone. Very few employees would dare show up to work in torn blue jeans if the boss normally wears a jacket and tie. In every team, there is a minimal level of professionalism, and that is expressed in part by how one dresses. If you want the right professionalism from your team, wear the clothes that reflect that professional appeal.
- Be kind and empathetic: Bullies do have followers, who are mainly other bullies, and they only stick around as long as the power of money flows from the top. But a great leader knows that kindness generates loyalty that lasts. To be kind requires empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (you can be polite without empathy, but being kind starts with understanding the person within).
- Never use vulgar or condescending language: You cannot inspire people through harshness. Vulgar language, regrettably in vogue these days, is harsh and has one of two effects on employees – it either makes them harsh themselves, or it makes them not want to engage you. Either way, you lose. The same applies to condescension. Combine the two and you will have a very high employee turnover rate.
- Treat everyone with the proper dignity and respect: Dignity and respect are intertwined. If you do not respect someone, you are more apt to not treat them with dignity. Start with the idea that everyone gets 100 percent credit up-front. Then don’t reduce that credit except for serious matters. In this way everyone you want to inspire automatically receives the dignity they want and likely deserve.
- Ask, “How can I help?”: Aside from “I love you,” there may not be a more powerful sentence you can utter. “How can I help?” communicates a number of things in four words. It says you care about them and their needs. It says you want to make them successful. It communicates that their needs are important, and thus your employees are important as well. If your employees trust you – and if you follow the previous examples they should – then they will tell you what they need, and that allows you to make them successful. As a side effect, it will make you successful too.
- Act with Integrity: Integrity is doing what’s right even when no one is watching. But people are always When you act without integrity, employees become motivated to watch out for themselves, not for you and not for the company. Likewise, when you demonstrate integrity, it communicates that it is expected.
- Be the optimist: Who follows a pessimist? Nobody. So, smile a lot, talk about what is gloriously possible, and how your teams will make it happen. JFK was optimistic, and his outlook caused mankind to leave the planet and land on the moon.
- Have a can-do attitude: A defeatist is a person who expects or is ready to accept failure. If you, as a leader, expect failure, why would anyone on your team want to work toward success? They would not. So even under the toughest situations, stay positive and assume that success can be had. When employees see an optimistic leader, one who says, “This may be tough, but we can do it,” they will indeed do it.
- Be the visionary: You need to have an objective and communicate it clearly. Let employees see the mission, why it is good, and why they are essential to achieving it. This crafting of the vision need not be expansive. An IT department might make a mission of zero downtime. A marketing department might establish a vision for creating an unbreakable brand. Your production facility could strive for 10 percent more output. Make the vision good, achievable and most of all, understood by all.
- Guide them, not drive them: Anyone who has worked cattle – and I have – knows that if you push a herd too hard, they will spook and stampede. But gently guiding a herd toward a corral works pretty well. Employees are not cattle, but they also do better when you set frameworks and expectations (guidance) and then get out of their way.
- Promote doing whatever it takes, no excuses: Aside from maintaining ethical employee behavior, letting your team know that the mission is important enough to require their ardent efforts is a reflection of your commitment to the company. The best way to do this involves you doing whatever it takes. Putting in visible extra effort shows that you are in the game for keeps, and that your team should be as well.
- Don’t just criticize a mistake: One old adage says to never complain unless you have a better idea. Likewise, criticizing an employee for making a mistake, but not helping them learn from their mistake is merely complaining. We all make mistakes, and we all should learn from them. A great example for you to set is showing that as a team, we help one another learn, including learning when we mess up.
- Do the Tough Things First: It is important to tackle the difficult and unpleasant tasks right away, every day. I call it “eating the ugly frog first.” People tend to procrastinate, and do so very well for big, complicated, onerous tasks. But no great project ever progresses until the big, complicated, onerous tasks are completed. When your team sees you assaulting the elephant in the room, they gain the conviction and courage necessary to do likewise.