Four Ways to Set the Example

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You crawl out of bed to begin another day. In the last few months, you noticed you work later each day to accomplish tasks to achieve your goals. As a result, you have been sleeping later and getting to work later. You also notice that others seem to be working later because they do not use their time well during the day. The poor time management starts first thing, as many seem to start their day after the expected reporting time.

Thinking back to when you built this team, people arrived early. They worked hard during the day, focusing on important tasks. In turn, people often left on time and sometimes a little early, including you. The team would meet at least once per week after work to talk about home, family, adventures, and hobbies. The team was strong; people cared for one another. Now things so different and you wonder why.

Setting a good example of expected behaviors is the single, biggest action you can take as a leader to develop character and establish trust. Live the standards you expect of others. They will model your example. In the introductory story, while fictional, it is based on observed behaviors from personal and researched experience, the leader established a standard of hard work during the day and returning people to their families at a decent hour. The team socialized after hours periodically, which helped create a shared experience. Slowly, the boss started working later and showing up later in the morning. Others did the same, resulting in a slow change in culture. Setting a good example by living your personal and organizational values establishes expected behaviors for everyone.

Four things are required to live expected standards. Know the standards and values. Understand what they mean. Use the values and standards in decision-making situations. Have the discipline to apply them in your personal and professional lives consistently. People you lead will observe and copy your behaviors. That is why people in the story started showing up and working later; they copied your example.

It is one thing to live the example, but communicating the standards is important. Find ways to tell people what your organization values. That means you must learn the values first and internalize them. Use posters to define what the words mean, so others have a shared understanding. Tell stories of team members who succeed by using the values. Never miss an opportunity to connect expected behaviors to your organization’s values.

Setting a good example helps leaders establish trust by showing others they know what they are asking others to do can be done. Your actions demonstrate you are willing to walk the talk in a consistent, disciplined fashion. Your behaviors create a pathway for others. You become the guide for your followers. That is the very meaning of leadership, being out front, doing what you expect of others.

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Of course, setting the example also includes all the behaviors discussed for the other five facets of the Trust Cornerstone; communicating respectfully, consistently, and truthfully; responsibly accounting for people and property; building your team; developing proficiency in your area of responsibility; and treating everyone respectfully.

How you communicate with others shows your level of respect for that person. The information you provide tells others the level of trust you have for each of them. The words and stories you choose establish expectations for all communications.

Leaders cannot be everywhere all the time. The old expression, “What the boss checks is what gets done” is true. People understand the things you check are important. You do not have to verify every employee’s time sheet, but if people know you check them, they will be neat, complete, and accurate. The same is true of everything else you are responsible for in the organization.

Leadership is about people. People become teams only if leaders develop people as teams. Working as a team is hard. Hard work is what makes teams work well. You will never climb far up any organizational ladder unless you learn to build effective, respectful, working teams.

Proficiency as a leader means you know how to lead. You understand the work that has to be done. As a police supervisor, I was responsible for things that happened even when home in bed. I could not know everything the other supervisors and officers knew. I had to know enough about each of their jobs to recognize failures and successes. Most of all, I had to demonstrate the ability to influence others; that was my job as a leader.

People outside the Army think military leaders stand around all day barking orders and others jump to their commands. Some days and in certain situations that is true. Most of the time it is not. Respect is a foundational Army value. Leaders are directed to treat their Soldiers with dignity and respect. Only in those small units, where Soldiers feel they are respected and listened to in low stress situations, do Soldiers jump when orders are barked in combat. The respect earned in peace creates instant obedience in war. The leaders and the led have mutual respect established by the leaders in everyday situations.

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Demonstrating each of these traits and living the organizational values in a consistent, disciplined fashion sets an example for those you lead. None of us will ever accomplish this example perfectly. In fact, it might be better to be flawed. Making mistakes and admitting them to your followers sets another important example; it is okay to make mistakes. The people we lead are no more perfect than we are. When they know we make mistakes and seek their forgiveness, they know their honest mistakes will also be forgiven. Knowing this, they are willing to take risks in uncertainty instead of seeking permission for every decision. That allows your organization to be more responsive to changing circumstances. Increased responsiveness ensures your organization remains on the cutting edge, ahead of your competition. The pay-off for living the example is greater trust, increased influence, and improved outcomes in all areas.

Setting a good example establishes leadership trust by showing others you are willing to walk the talk. Others see your example and model your behaviors. As a result, others do the right things for the right reasons. Your organization improves responsiveness as the world changes. Faster responses in times of change creates a competitive edge over others. Setting the example is the single biggest thing you can do to develop character and create trust as a leader. Set the example.


Blanchard, K. & Miller, M. (2014) The secret: What great leaders know and do. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Feltman, C. (2008). The thin book of trust: An essential primer for building trust at work. United States: Thin Book Publishing.

Russell, N. (2012). 10 ways effective leaders build trust. Psychology Today. Retrieved from on 8/2/21.

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(c) 2022 Christopher St. Cyr