If You Expect Them to Follow, You Better Lead!

authentic leadership behavior commitment effective leadership employee engagement employee retention engagement example follow through high performers influence leadership culture performance set the example turnover why is it important to lead by example Dec 22, 2022
why is it important to lead by example

In many cases, the team members within an organization will indeed follow the leader because, at least for the most part, people do what people see… I’ve seen that hold true in companies with world class performance and I’ve seen it in places that were struggling to stay afloat. Even in the worst cultures though, there always seems to be a few folks who are determined to deliver excellent results in spite of what anyone else around them does - be that their peers or their managers. If we were talking about employee engagement, I’d be referring to these folks as the actively engaged group or the ones actually rowing the boat. For our purposes right now, let’s just say these are the people who are committed to producing the best results possible regardless of what’s going on around them - at least for a while…

I remember a scenario several years ago where the engineering manager I worked with had an extremely high expectation for his maintenance team to defy all odds in even the worst weather and get to the facility. At face value, that makes perfect sense because that 24/7 operation produced about a quarter of a billion dollars in product each year and rarely shut down for anything. Oh, and the majority of that production was done on equipment that was built when God was still a young boy. The challenge wasn’t so much that his expectation was too high; the maintenance team were basically performing miracles every single day and that was absolutely necessary to achieve anything resembling the productivity demands the management team expected. The real rub came from that manager struggling to make it to work on time when there was anything more than a light drizzle. As you can imagine, his behavior set the tone for what several of his team saw as acceptable. 

Before I go on, I want you to consider this statement I found in an article from FastCompany.com called 15 Ways Leaders Can Set a Bad Example for Their Teams:

“Teams are influenced by everything from a leader’s speech patterns to their attitudes. Consciously or unconsciously, employees often pick up habits, mannerisms, and mindsets from their managers and other higher-ups—an instinct that often trumps paying close attention to “the rules.” That’s why leaders must stop and think about the messages they may be unconsciously sending to their teams.”

At that point in time, I was responsible for handling most of the disciplinary action throughout the facility and I can assure you that those hourly team members were being held to the same standard as everyone else in the building through the no-fault attendance policy. Not only did that lead to more than a few write-ups for poor attendance, it resulted in poor morale. But that’s not where the challenges stopped!

Even with all that mess going on, there were still a few extremely dedicated members of that team. Unfortunately, their dedication was often rewarded with a workload that was significantly more than their share… A few of those miracle workers had been with the company for decades and had so much time off built up that they gritted their teeth through all that mess and kept doing their thing. There were a couple high performers though that got fed up with it and chose somewhere else to show up at - and I couldn’t hardly blame them!

If we want a team of folks who meet (and exceed) expectations, follow policies and procedures, and will engage to help accomplish our mission and vision, it won’t happen if we’re only telling them how things need to be done. If we expect them to follow - especially if that’s in a way that yields great results - we’d better be willing to lead! There will certainly be a few who will do their best whether we set a great example or not, but there’s a strong chance that they’ll find somewhere else to do it sooner than later if we’re not willing to set the example we’re expecting them to follow.

Before we dig into some specific but very simple steps we can each take to lead our teams in a direction we’d want them to follow, we’ll take a look at some real life leadership examples and the results they achieved. Stay tuned!