Leading By Example Is Insufficient

AdVance Leadership » Leading By Example Is Insufficient

1 Insight

Leading by example is often considered the best form of leadership, but it’s insufficient when it’s not coupled with explaining your actions.

Stop depending on leading by example.

We know this is not the advice you expect to hear from leadership consultants. But it’s time someone told you the truth: leading by example alone is not good leadership.

Over the years, we’ve seen leaders baffled when their lead-by-example-alone philosophy doesn’t net the results they expected. We recently talked to James. He wants his sales staff to have a “professional” appearance. He makes sure his clothes are neatly ironed every day. Still, two of his team members show up to their sales presentations with wrinkled clothes.


Leading By Example is Ineffective.

Leading by example is based on the assumption that people will see the behaviors that you deem important and imitate you. This philosophy of leadership is ineffective for two reasons:

1. Just because you do it, doesn’t mean they see it.

Susan runs a plumbing business. At the end of every day, she washes her truck and ensures all her supplies are organized. She also reorders any dwindling supplies. It frustrates her that her team doesn’t follow suit. Their trucks are filthy and disorganized, and they often have to delay jobs when they run out of supplies.

Susan is making a common mistake. She believes that her team sees her washing and organizing her car every day. In reality, some of her team is still in the field. Others have already gone home. Still others are busy with closing out their own work. She’s trying to set an example for everyone, but no one is paying attention to her.

2. Leading by example forces your team to interpret your actions.

Let’s go back to Susan. Even if everyone on the team observed Susan washing and organizing her car every day, they are still left to interpret her actions. They will see what she is doing but might not understand why she does it.

Susan washes and organizes her truck every day for a couple reasons: (1) Every truck is a billboard for the business. If she’s driving around town with a dirty truck, it’s bad marketing. (2) A stocked and well-organized truck allows her to finish her work quickly instead of having to search for tools.

If she has to search for tools, it wastes the customer’s time and means that she has to work longer hours to finish her route. She has less time to spend with her family.

When Susan leads by example alone, she leaves the interpretation of her actions up to the observers. 

One of her team members thinks that Susan is obsessive about a clean vehicle. He sees her daily habit as a flaw. Another team member interprets Susan’s actions as showing that she has expendable time. He thinks, “Look how easy her job is. She has time to wash her truck every day.”

Susan is leading by example, but it’s ineffective. Rather than inspiring her team to take care of their trucks, she’s having the opposite effect.


A Better Way

Leading by example is not the worst form of leadership. But there is a better way: Lead by explained example.

Leading by explained example happens when you (1) intentionally choose the behaviors you want people to mimic, (2) draw attention to those behaviors, and (3) explain to others why you expect them to emulate those actions.

1. Choose the behaviors you want people to mimic.

For Susan, she wants people to clean and organize their trucks at the end of every day.

What are the behaviors you want people to focus on?

2. Draw attention to those behaviors.

Susan has been doing these behaviors for a long time, but she can’t know if her team has seen her doing them. She needs to begin drawing attention to her daily routine.

She could talk about it at staff meetings. She could invite others to join her at the end of the day. She could play loud music while she’s organizing her truck.

What can you do to draw attention to the behaviors you want people to follow?

3. Explain why you expect others to follow your example.

Now that Susan is drawing attention to the behaviors, she needs to explain why these habits are important and why she expects others to imitate her. She could explain that dirty and disorganized trucks:

  • Hurt the business by creating bad marketing;
  • Hurt customers by wasting their time;
  • Hurt employees by stealing time from their families and hobbies.

By explaining her reasons, she interprets her actions and creates clarity for her team.

How will you explain the behaviors you want your team to imitate?


Leading by example is insufficient. Instead, lead by explained example.



1 Action

Determine one of your behaviors you want your team to imitate. How will you draw their attention to it and explain why it’s important that they do it as?



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