Leaders talk about the importance of maintaining discipline. As we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic, not all leaders discipline themselves. Reporters had field days with several well known political leaders who failed to follow the safety rules. They lost respect from many when they violated travel restrictions while the rest of us were barricaded in our homes. People watch their leaders. When they say they are going to do something, they better do it. When they tell others they need to do something, the leader better set the example. Setting an example by doing what you tell others to do is the fastest, most effective way one develops character and builds trust.
Setting the example creates humility.
Setting the sample means you understand other’s limitations.
Setting the example means sometimes making a mistake and learning from it.
Setting the example means celebrating another’s success the way you want others to celebrate your successes.
Setting the example means you know you are still learning and so is everyone else.
When you do the things you ask of others as a leader, you bring yourself down to their level. As a result, you can better see the world the way they do. I am not stating that I expect leaders to dig ditches, answer the switchboard, wash cars, or execute data entry all day everyday. I am saying that sometimes it is a good idea to grab a broom and sweep up the floor at the entry to your office suite, answer you own phone when you are able, and let one of your people show you how to process an order for a customer. Doing these things reminds you that those who follow you are special people with unique skills and talent. There may be parts of the organization no one knows better than you. Never forget there are people who know more about important parts of the organization than you will every be capable of knowing. They contribute as much to your success as your own actions. When you remember those who follow you are impressive people, it is easier to be humble.
When you begin doing and understanding the work of others in your organization, you learn both the strengths and limitations of the people, processes, and equipment. Knowing the edge of those limits helps you as a leader create realistic expectations. Turning back to the pandemic, government at all levels ramped up slowly to establish testing sites. As vaccinations became available, many found the challenges for putting shots in arms were not the same as sticking swabs in noses. Sites were scheduled to operate at maximum capacity then ran into problems about a month later as people needed second shots while others were trying to schedule their first. Some places adapted quickly by adding people, locations, and clinic hours. Others dragged their feet. Leaders must understand the limitations of their people, processes, and equipment in order to avoid similar mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, as you wonder around setting an example you will make mistakes. None of us are perfect. Those who are less well-trained, new in positions, or inattentive will make more mistakes. Those with more training and experience make fewer mistakes. Making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. However, in order to learn a lesson, you first must acknowledge a mistake was made. We all worked for that leader with the zero defect mentality. Were mistakes made under those leaders? Absolutely! Sadly, it is likely the same mistakes were probably made frequently and covered up. Understand there is a difference between a mistake and deliberate misbehavior. We all recognize the difference between someone knocking the table inadvertently resulting in hot coffee spilling into your lap compared to the person who turns over the hot coffee directly onto your lap. Learning to deal with mistakes so others learn and become better performers is a true test of a leader. When others know honest mistakes result in retraining and forgiveness, people will be forth coming with mistakes so they can become better. You can share those mistakes across the organization after anonymizing the details so others learn too.
Celebrating success is an important leadership ritual. When you share the spotlight, others work harder because they know they will be recognized. Those in leadership positions who never shine the spotlight on others soon find they are working alone, or are often training new people because their good workers keep leaving. Patton once made a comment like, “Soldiers will do incredible things for a little piece of colored ribbon to affix to their uniform.” When celebrating success, make it about the contributions of the team, not you. Make sure the rewards for excellent behavior match the level of contribution. I am sure many readers remember (or not) receiving “Participation Trophies” during their early years of team sports. The problem with recognizing everyone is that you recognize no one. Some people think that doing the bare minimum means they should receive awesome amounts of recognition while others that go above and beyond blush at being recognized. Both people contributed differently. Both should be recognized according to their contribution.
When you continue to learn, others value continuous learning too. If your followers say things about you like, “She forgot more about that than both of us will ever know.”, and yet they still see you learning more, you send the message that learning is important in your organization. I met a person at a training one time that had a really bad attitude about being there. We had lunch together and I asked him why so blue. He told me that obviously he was going to get fired soon because his boss did not trust him regarding the topic of the training. I learned that in his organization, they only sent incompetent people to training to justify firing them. I suspect the organization had lots of leadership problems. People should know when you send them to learn new things it is not punishment but rather a reward for using what they already knew.
Disciplined leadership means setting a good example. As you walk the talk, you demonstrate and state your expectations of those you lead. When you do fail to live the expectations you set, you lose respect in the same way political leaders do when they travel during a pandemic. When you live your values, you become known as someone who walks the talk, understands and respects reasonable limitations, expects mistakes and the learning that goes with mistakes ,and establish your exception people are continuous learners. You stay humble because you understand as a leader your success results from the work others do on your behalf. You make better decisions and when you make a mistake, people follow your lead and forgive you too. Do not be like too many of our political leaders. If you establish a rule, follow it too. If it is good enough for those who follow you, it is good enough for you. Your disciplined example is a beacon of character in a world of dark, sneaky secrets. Use your beacon as a guiding light for others to follow.
- Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. Random House, New York, NY
- Covey, S. (1989). 7 Habits of highly effective people, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY
(c) 2021 Christopher St. Cyr