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Why Leading By Example Isn't Enough

My parents never rewarded me for getting an A in high school. Why? Because that was expected. Similarly, showing up to cross-country practice on time never evoked a round of applause from my track coach. That was my obligation as a member of the team. Preparing and ultimately delivering on that promise formed the baseline. It set the stage for my individual success. Leadership works the same way. It requires developing yourself and then others. It requires more than just an example. 

Gandhi taught that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. Said another way, you must offer that which you seek. If you want to build an All-Star team then you must become an All-Star. The first step in leadership is to develop yourself. How can you assist another if your house is not in order? Learn your job and do it well. Set the example.

But most people do not learn by observation. I know not to touch the stove because I was once burned, and I know how to correct a mistake only after it was made. We learn by doing. The real work begins when it's time to translate losses into wins; challenges into opportunities; enemies into friends. We are only as good as the sum of our parts, and the key is to invest in the development of the whole. 

This proves difficult, however, when your example must translate 101 ways. Observation may be enough for some, but certain runners may need you to walk them through the course while others will need you to run the race with them. Leadership requires flexibility. The one constant is the willingness to direct your feats so that they align with the pursuits of the team.

There’s a reason why relay racers look back before grabbing the baton. They anticipate the handoff: the moment before one runner completes what the next is set to do. It’s an acknowledgement of will and a commitment to carry it home. It’s the send-off before victory. In life we will be on the receiving end, but more often than not, we will be the ones barreling down the track pushing the others forward. 

[Image: Flickr user Tom Grundy Photo]

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  • John Balla

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, but I get the sense that this is a good introduction to something more that you have to say. Not that I am expecting you to spell out what IS enough for leadership, but it does lead me to wonder. Clearly, developing my own expertise is fundamental no matter what, and providing an example is very important (and sufficient for some).

    To me, the next question is how you propagate the expertise among the people for whom observation is not enough? That question becomes even more vexing among non-positional leaders (people who lead but don't benefit from a position on the org chart that makes it clear). I'd love to hear your thoughts on what comes next after this great introductory blog post on this topic.