Many new leaders mistakenly believe they must reach out with words and deeds and actively shape the thoughts and behaviors of their employees. They feel that job one is to identify the many ways in which they can directly improve the folks around them at work. They spend many hours analyzing others and crafting specific ways to improve others. I am not saying this is not useful or that it is not a normal part of a leader’s role. However, becoming too focused on fixing and improving others can blind you from working on the single greatest leadership tactic known: leading by example.
Leading by example means that you practice what you preach, you walk the talk, you do what you say you will do, etc. When you model good behaviors at work, people see you. They see what you say, what you do, and how you react in different situations. They can fairly easily discern what you care about and what you values. People learn about you vicariously, just by watching you interact with others, far better than when they are directly interacting with you. When they are interacting with you, they are feeling some apprehension or deference to your status, thinking about what they will say next, wondering what you are thinking about them, you name it. The list is long. When merely observing you, none of these barriers are present and people see more clearly. They learn about you more clearly.
As a person with some status, every single thing you do sends a strong signal to each and every person around you. The all important question – What kind of signals are you sending? Do not assume you know how others view you. I promise you that others view you differently than you think they do. The only question is how differently!
There are at least two useful ways to uncover how others actually view you so that you can better appreciate the importance of vicarious learning. First, consider a 360 evaluation. This is a means of collecting performance-related feedback from colleagues who report to you, work with you, and to whom you report. Today there are many low cost quality tools available to assist you with this process. Second, find a good professional confidant. Someone who knows your work persona well. Ask them for candid feedback about the model you set for others at work. You might be surprised by what you find out.
My challenge to you – realize that great leaders do not shy away from honest performance feedback. As a result, they get better at digesting and using feedback. This in turn makes it even easier to lead by example because it can become a positive reinforcing cycle.
Dr. Dewett is a nationally recognized leadership expert, professor, author, professional speaker and consultant specializing in all aspects of organizational life. As quoted in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, CNN, the Chicago Tribune, MSNBC and elsewhere. He is the author of Leadership Redefined. Podcasts, blog, free newsletter and more at http://www.drdewett.com Copyright 2009 TVA Inc.
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