Leading by example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Understanding leading by example

Leading by example – also known as servant leadership – is a leadership style where the superior models the behavior they want to see in their subordinates.

In the process, they clarify acceptable forms of conduct and ensure every member of the team works with confidence and purpose toward common objectives.

Leading by example can also be embodied by subordinates who have some form of influence over others.

They may exhibit desirable personality traits that others feel compelled to imitate, take a stand on an important issue, or possess expertise on a particular subject.

What does leading by example look like for managers?

Leadership in business takes many forms and in some cases, can extend beyond the workplace. Here are some examples:

  • The leader who comes in early or works weekends with subordinates to ensure a complex project is delivered on time.
  • The team member who is detail and deadline-oriented and consistently delivers work on time and within budget. 
  • The CEO who makes time in their busy schedule to attend diversity and inclusion training to show subordinates they take it seriously. 
  • The employee who volunteers to do less desirable jobs at the company working bee, and
  • The team member prioritizes employee development and growth by creating and running workshops. 

Leading by example best practices

In this section, let’s take a look at some of the ways leading by example can be embodied:

Show empathy

Empathy is contagious in business and is well suited to leading by example.

When leaders show empathy, it provides a safe space for team members to do likewise.

Empathy promotes an environment where employees feel they can discuss difficult issues like unethical behavior or harassment.

Listen to the team

Those that lead by example understand the limits of their knowledge and know that even the most junior employees have the wisdom to share.

This is particularly true of specialist teams recruiting members for their skills or expertise. 

Resolve conflict constructively

Leaders cannot expect their team to handle conflict well if they themselves shut down after a disagreement.

Leading by example, in this instance, means addressing conflict calmly and productively.

Managers must acknowledge the problem, briefly explain their reasoning, and conclude with a neutral solution.

Bounce back from failure

Failure is an inherent part of life and business but it can nevertheless leave employees deflated and unmotivated.

Those who lead by example recover after failure by inspiring employees to dust themselves off and try again.

They remind employees that all failures are learning opportunities and ensure they maintain adequate perspective.

Key takeaways:

  • Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate desirable behavior or conduct themselves.
  • Leadership in business takes many forms and in some cases, can extend beyond the workplace. It can also be embodied by individuals within teams who can influence others in ways not related to their job title.
  • Some of the many ways a manager can lead by example include showing empathy, resolving conflict constructively, listening to the team, and proactively bouncing back from failure.

Leading by Example Key Highlights:

  • Definition and Purpose: Leading by example is a leadership style where actions, rather than words, set the standard for acceptable behavior. It aims for employees to emulate these behaviors.
  • Servant Leadership: It involves modeling behavior to clarify conduct expectations and drive the team toward common goals.
  • Variety of Examples: Leading by example is not limited to managers; it can be exhibited by anyone with influence. It can include actions such as working alongside subordinates, prioritizing diversity training, volunteering, or facilitating workshops.
  • Empathy: Leaders should display empathy, creating a safe environment for employees to express concerns and discuss difficult issues.
  • Listening to the Team: Acknowledging others’ expertise and wisdom, particularly in specialized teams, fosters a culture of respect and collaboration.
  • Constructive Conflict Resolution: Leaders should address conflicts calmly, explain their reasoning, and work toward neutral solutions to demonstrate productive conflict management.
  • Resilience After Failure: Leading by example involves bouncing back from failure, inspiring employees to learn from setbacks, maintain perspective, and persevere.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 
Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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