Leadership Principle #4 – Lead By Example

Military Officers spend a lot of time studying military history, particularly famous (and infamous) commanders.  Often one finds buried in dry academic analyses and (sometimes self-serving) autobiographies gems of insight into leadership and human behaviour that one can take away and apply to one’s own leadership challenges.

My favourite historical military leader is, without question, Field Marshal Viscount Slim of Burma, commander of the UK’s 14th Army in the Second World War and “Uncle Bill” to his soldiers.  His memoir “Defeat Into Victory” is a candid (unlike some of his contemporaries he actually admits to having made mistakes) and riveting read.

“Uncle Bill” has a few pithy leadership quotes ascribed to him including: “Nothing is so good for the morale of the troops as to occasionally see a dead general”; and “There are no bad regiments, only bad officers.”  As young Officer Cadets, we were introduced to his uncompromising “Guidance for Officers newly arrived in 14th Army” which, as I remember, went something like this, “I charge you as officers, that you will not eat until your men have eaten, rest until they have rested, smoke until they have had a chance to do the same. If you do this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you [demote you to the rank of Private] in front of your regiment.”  By way of demonstrating this standard himself, Slim directed that anytime the flow of supplies to his front-line troops was interrupted (which happened frequently) he and his Headquarters staff were to go on half-rations until the problem had been corrected.  As he wryly notes in his memoirs, this was a great way of ensuring focused attention on solving the problem!

Leadership by example is perhaps easier to recognize in the sort of high-risk, high-stress situations that soldiers, police and firefighters, EMTs and their kin deal with.  But what does it look like in a corporate or government office, particularly in times of organizational turmoil?  How is it expressed when dealing with knowledge workers who neither need nor want your direct involvement in their work?  How do you “walk the talk” or “model the way” in these situations?

We’ve all got stories about times that those above us failed to lead by example.  I’d really love to hear about a time that you saw a leader do this well.  What did they do?  What affect did it have on you and those around you?  What did you learn and how do you apply that insight in your own leadership?  Let’s talk about it!