Follow the Leader…?

Having just worked through the importance of responsiveness, especially when it comes to showing we value the teams we lead and maintain the influence we’ve worked to earn with the folks on those teams, I want to challenge you to really think into this question: Why is it important to lead by example?

I often ask rhetorical questions here since I don’t get to chat through it with you one-on-one. This IS NOT one of those rhetorical questions! And while the answer may seem obvious, it’s apparently not. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had two specific conversations about it recently with top performers from separate organizations, both extremely frustrated with the company culture they are currently a part of!

What each of them shared was so similar that I almost believed that they had spoken with one another before talking with me, except they don't know each other and the companies they work with don’t overlap at all that I’m aware of. In both of the individual conversations, the friend I was talking with explained a specific value the executives in their organization expect them to deliver on in everything they do. If that’s where either story ended, my response would have been “Good! You absolutely should be held accountable to your organization’s values!”

Unfortunately, that was just the beginning - and the source of their frustration. As each conversation unfolded, my friends each shared very specific examples of how a few of the executives they work with (and even reported to) frequently hopped on their proverbial soapbox to tell everyone how critical it was for them to do X, Y, and Z while making nearly no attempt whatsoever to do those same things themselves.

 I’ve shared a few different lessons in our Leading At The Next Level program calling attention to the difference between managing and leading, and even between executive teams and leadership teams, so I’ll fight the urge to go down that rabbit trail again now. However, I will stress that anyone with a position or title can bark orders. And in most cases, their direct reports will comply with those orders - at least as long as the boss is watching. But if we want our team members to genuinely buy into the values we’ve shared by performing certain behaviors on a routine basis, whether we’re watching over their shoulders or not, we need to move beyond the limited power that comes with positional authority and set the example we want our team members to follow!

If we’re serious about building an organizational culture that provides results whether we’re onsite or we’re on a field trip with our kids, managing by policy won’t get it done. We need to provide a solid reason for them to be willing to follow the leader! As we do a deep dive into this, we’ll look at how this can impact our organizations (good and bad), some effective leaders who have been great examples for their teams, as well as some specific things any leader can do to set an example they’d be proud to have each member of their team follow!

People Do What People See… 

Expecting anyone to blindly Follow the Leader is more than a little naive, especially over extended periods of time or in performing difficult tasks, because our teams are much more apt to do what they see us doing when we’re in similar situations! But let’s be honest with ourselves here, telling our team members to adhere to even the simplest of rules then failing to do so ourselves won’t work all that well either. EVERYTHING rises and falls on leadership!

In all the years I had responsibility for facilitating a behavior-based safety process, I did everything in my power to avoid giving even the perception of me skirting a safety policy. While that process was geared at identifying risks, and not tied in any way to compliance, I still knew that I had to walk a very fine line if I wanted to maintain credibility with the workforce as a whole and convince a small portion of those team members to volunteer their time to be active in that process. If my behavior showed that safety wasn’t important to me, even if I wasn’t exposed to the same level of risk that the majority of folks were on a routine basis, would it have been reasonable for me to expect anyone to take a suggestion I offered seriously? I certainly didn’t think so, and I did everything I possibly could to set the example I hoped folks would follow.

Interestingly enough, that wasn’t always the case with other members of the management team with regards to wearing the required personal protection equipment when it came to safety - and I can share more than a few stories about managers who held their team members accountable for a whole host of other things that they made no attempt to do themselves! In some cases, those things were tied to the specific duties within a department but sometimes it was as simple as showing up on time…

Think back to the two high performers I mentioned before… One of them told me how their executive team had set an expectation that everyone in the organization responds to emails within 24 hours. I don’t care what industry you’re in, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request - and they didn’t either. Their frustration, however, was coming from multiple instances of reaching out to folks on that executive team and not hearing back for far longer. Their comment was something about being given the perception that the executives believed they were above reproach… I’m not sure that’s the message their executive team meant to send, but perception does indeed become someone’s reality!

A lot of the work Cindy and I do today is directly with business owners and high level managers. Those tend to be some of the busiest individuals within their organizations. One thing I’ve noticed through our interaction with them is that the ones who take the longest to respond, or even miss responding from time to time (intentional or not), tend to have a similar culture throughout their organization. Just like the manager I worked with years ago who never wore safety shoes on the shop floor and constantly struggled to get his employees to wear their required equipment, the executives who don’t follow up or follow through have team members who duplicate their behavior. People do what people see…

This can lead to certain immediate consequences, especially in safety or customer service, but it can also take a toll on even the most dedicated team members, the ones who are committed to upholding the organization’s values and achieving great results…

If You Expect Them to Follow, You Better Lead!

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 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.”

When I worked with that particular engineering manager, I was responsible for handling most of the disciplinary action throughout the facility and I can assure you that his 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…