3 Practical Ways a Boss Can Lead by Example

Actions to inspire and motivate your team

Credit: OPOLJA on Shutterstock.com

Leadership by example is probably the most critical leadership principle to adopt. We hear about it all the time in leadership literature but rarely do we hear about practical ways to do it.

Famous Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer said:

“The three most important ways to lead people are:… by example… by example… by example.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

I’ve been in various military, corporate, volunteer, and government leadership roles for over 20 years. I concur with the wise people I quoted above that setting an example is critical.

But what is the best way to do this? Well, glad you asked!

Here are 3 ways leaders can set an example that will motivate and inspire.

1. They Get Their Hands Dirty

There is a perfect story for this concept.

On a dark, cold morning during the Revolutionary war, a stranger dressed in drab clothing rode his horse along the front lines. He noticed a small group of utterly exhausted men struggling to build their defensive position.

Standing near these weary men was a Corporal shouting orders and threatening punishment if the work wasn’t completed quickly.

“What are you doing?” the stranger asked the Corporal.

“I am in charge of leading these men. They do as I tell them. We must fortify this position — the orders came directly from the top!” said the Corporal.

“So why aren’t you helping them?” the stranger asked.

“Because I’m their leader. They do what I say. If you feel so strongly about it and want to help then go ahead.”

So the stranger jumped down off his horse into the hole and helped the men until the job was done. The stranger then thanked the men for their hard work, wiped the mud from his hands, and approached the Corporal.

“You should notify higher command the next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men — and I will happily provide a more permanent solution.”

The Corporal’s face ran ghost-white as he rendered a shaky salute to the Commander of the Continental Army… General George Washington.

I love this story. It’s the literal example of a leader getting their hands dirty and it’s important in two ways.

First, George Washington jumped in and helped. He didn’t jump in and lead the effort. He didn’t jump in to nitpick or micromanage. He just helped because his people needed help.

Secondly, he wasn’t afraid to work hard. He made himself less comfortable to make his people more comfortable…a critical concept. He didn’t sit back like the misguided Corporal and bark orders.

What actions can you take with this principle?

Work harder than your team. If they need help with something they are doing, jump in and help, but be just that — a helper.

When tasks are to be doled out, take the unappealing ones when you can to give your team a break. Go out and visit “the front lines.” Ask them what they need — then listen. Of course, you don’t want to have your hands so dirty you lose focus on your job, but remember a good leader’s hands get the occasional dirt.

They’ll also appreciate the fact that tasks you ask them to do aren’t “beneath you.”

“Real leaders aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.” — Mary Kay Ash

2. Find Value in Everyone And Communicate It

Human motivation can be boiled down to the fact that people want to matter.

If they matter to you, you are filling that need. And I mean truly matter, not just pandering happy-talk.

Everyone should matter to you if you want to be a leader people truly want to follow.

And I’m not talking just about your employees. If your people see you treat everyone with respect and value they’ll know what kind of person you are.

My mom set an example for me I’ll never forget. She worked with an influential firm in the State Capitol so she often rubbed shoulders with governors or other “important” people. But as she walked to her building each day, she’d always stop and talk to the disabled man who was barely scraping by selling flowers on the corner. She treated him like he was the most valuable person she knew that day. I’m sure it meant the world to him. I’m almost tearing up writing this because that true kindness…that love… is so powerful. We could all use more of that.

She set the example of how to treat everyone you meet with value and dignity.

What actions can you take with this principle?

Maybe you’re out to eat with your team. Treat the waiter with the same respect and courtesy same as you’d treat your boss. Tell your team when you appreciate what they are doing. Think of people as people first, employees second.

Whether it’s the CEO, governor, or garbage man, treat everyone with the equal value they deserve. This example can be one of the most powerful ones you’ll ever set.

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Malcolm S. Forbes

3. They Set the Emotional Tone

There’s a phenomenon social scientists called emotional contagion in which your emotions are contagious almost like viruses…just like it sounds.

Emotional contagion can be described as:

The phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people. Emotional contagion is important to personal relationships because it fosters emotional synchrony between individuals.

Dr. Andrew Meltzoff conducted studies on how humans are hardwired to pick up emotions from others.

People who are perceived to have more influence such as a boss are considered “senders” of feelings while employees are the “receivers.” It’s similar to how a satellite projects signals while the dishes receive them.

Add to that, mirror neurons in our brains reflect these perceived emotions then unconsciously we adopt them as our own.

If a boss projects a lack of enthusiasm, negativity, hatred, anger, or fear then their people will “feel” and reflect that as well.

Your people feel what you feel so choose your feelings wisely.

What actions can you take with this principle?

Set the example of what emotions you’d like your team to have. Project genuine enthusiasm. Even if the job itself is difficult to get enthusiastic about, doing a good job at it can warrant an enthusiastic approach. Project a can-do, hopeful attitude if you want your team to feel like they can meet the challenges ahead. Be positive and caring towards your people personally and professionally, and meet fear with courage.

Your people will follow your example on all of this.

Final Thoughts and Motivation

When you are who you want your people to be you are setting the example. There is a best kind of example to set though. One that brings out the best in those you lead — but more importantly one that genuinely recognized their purpose and value.

To recap 3 great ways to set the example:

  1. Get your hands dirty. Work hard. Help when you can without meddling.
  2. Adopt positive emotions of can-do, hope, and even love.
  3. Find value in everyone and treat everyone with respect. This will show your people you are a person of character worth following.

And if you have to choose just one of these examples to set, it is to find value in everyone. You simply can’t go wrong with that.

When you do these things, your team will know they have an example they can truly follow — an example that makes them want to be the best they can be.

And for that, they’ll love that you are their leader.

Family Man. Top Writer in Leadership. MBA Strategy and Management. Marine Corps Veteran. Winemaker. emaxklein@icloud.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store