How to Lead by Example

Howell Raines’ description of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant is one of my favorite leadership quotes. He said: “Coach Bryant had an idea of how a gentleman should act, and if you watched him, you could figure it out.”

That’s leadership by example. Lots of people tell you that it’s important. They rarely get into the details. How exactly do you lead by example?

Leading by example is more than doing good deeds. It’s doing your job and leading your life in ways that influence others to do the right thing. There are specific things you can do to make your example more powerful in three critical areas.

If You Want Your Teammates to Work Hard

Your job is to help the team and the team members succeed. So, do things that make that happen. That’s part of your example.

Craig was the supervisor in a large machine shop. Every Friday they prepared the shop for the following week. Tools and other supplies were put away. There was cleaning, polishing, mopping, lubricating, and general scut work. Every week, when it was time to start, Craig said the same thing: “Okay, people, let’s get this done so we can all go home.”

Other supervisors in other shops were in their offices cleaning up paperwork while their team cleaned the shop. Not Craig. He helped with the work until everything was done. When it was, he said, “Okay, we’re done. Get out of here and have fun.”

Then, Craig stepped into his office and cleaned up his paperwork. Craig demonstrated to his teammates that he was part of the team, not some separate leadership entity. He set the example of what good work looks like by pitching in to help teammates.

If You Want Your Teammates to Tell the Truth

We want people to tell us the truth at work. That helps the team meet challenges more quickly and more effectively. Obviously, you set the example by telling the truth yourself. So, do that. Then do a little more.

Tell the truth when you pass credit around. Acknowledge your teammates’ hard work, progress, and achievements. Never take credit for team achievement. Pass it around.

Truth is your friend. Some truth will be uncomfortable. Don’t make telling the truth a risky proposition. When people have an unpleasant truth to tell you, especially about your own behavior, be thankful. Say “Thank you.”

If You Want Your Teammates to Bring You Good Ideas

You want your teammates to share good ideas. Encourage them to bring good ideas to the team. They’ll probably be reluctant. Legions of teachers and bosses have taught them that most “leaders” don’t really want to hear their ideas.

Receive ideas like gifts. Think of all the kids’ drawings posted on refrigerators around the country. They’re not there because they’re great art. They’re there because they represent the relationship between parents and children. Thanking people for their ideas and treating those ideas as gifts is the best way to keep those ideas coming.

Your behavior sends the message that your relationship with teammates is human and strong. Your behavior sends the message that everyone’s ideas are important.


To set the example, work hard at your job, helping the team and team members succeed.

Pitch in and do the work to help the team succeed.

Set the example by telling the truth.

Tell the truth when you pass credit around.

Truth is your friend.

Even when it’s uncomfortable, say thank you for the truth.

Receive ideas the way you would a young child’s “painting,” with thanks and praise.

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