Why sometimes leadership by example doesn’t work

Some always tout leadership by example as the model to follow, stating that if you want someone to follow your lead, the best way is to lead by example. I remember this quote: 

“The world is changed by your example. Not your opinion.”

I generally also agree with that. Indeed, I think leadership by example is an excellent model to start with. Yet, this is only one model of leadership that works in selected situations. After all, we don’t expect Mike Tyson’s coach to be a better boxer than him.

There are a few situations where I think LBE does not work as well. And here are some of them.

You have a different task.

I remember someone told me when I was an Instructor that I should make an effort to join the PT session when my participants are doing it. However, I have a different role. My role is to supervise the safety, and if necessary, react when a situation happens. When participants sleep, I am still working. And courses usually run for multiple days. Hence I need to keep my energy level high. It is not that I cannot participate in the PT. Instead, there are situations where I deem it is not ideal for me to lead by example.

You are in different stages.

Imagine you are a trainee barber, and instead of using the shaver, your superior asked you to use the scissors instead. You think that this is redundant. Furthermore, your trainer does not do the same thing. However, it would help if you remembered that you are in the training phase. Not your trainer. He may have already been through this training.

During my time as an Instructor, some of my participants feel that I do not know how they feel. Some of them had to use a kick bike, but for me, I got to cycle to provide safety coverage properly. However, they perhaps do not know that as Instructors, we all had to go through a 21 days course.

You have different empowerment, hence responsibility.

To put it simply, if you screw up, you will affect your boss because you are under his charge. However, when your leader screws up, he will jeopardise his boss instead. Hence, it is not your responsibility to police the behaviour of your boss but the other way around. And he is telling you because it is his job to do so. Sometimes, we need to understand that although ideally, we as employees should buy into organisational practices and values, some act in a certain way because we are compelled to, not because we want to.

The situation is different.

You remember that last week, your leader told you not to wear shorts to work. One week later, you see him doing the same thing. What a hypocrite, right? But perhaps last week, VIPs were coming to visit, and you did not know about it. Or maybe he made a casual remark that you should not drive to work to save the environment. Yet, he seems to drive all the time. But what he did not share is that he usually has to drop off his elderly mother at the hospital every morning before he goes to work. But it is not the same for you. Sometimes, it could be that your leader is a hypocrite. But it can also be that the situation is different.

In conclusion, leadership by example is generally good. But we need to understand its limitations and not be upset when sometimes, our leaders do not seem to practice what they preach. When we are in their position, seeing what they see, having been through what they have been through, we might do better. Or we might not. As followers, we need to understand that sometimes, a leader cannot always lead by example. As leaders, we need to lead by example as much as we can.

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By ben@sgben.com

Hi, I am Benjamin. I am a Singaporean son, born and bred. I came from a modest background, just like most Singaporeans and went to mainstream schools like most middle-class Singaporeans. What makes me different is my unconventional choices and journey in life, giving me more profound insights. Entering a secondary school infested with secret societies in the earlier days exposed me to a different side of Singapore. I graduated well despite having a volatile phase. I chose one of the youngest polytechnics despite having a score good enough for JC, even as others tell me it is not recognised, and I would not make it into university through that path. During my National Service, I also went through a difficult phase of rediscovering the purpose of serving. My university was another defining chapter, spanning over nine years, involving many adventures and endeavours. As you can see, I seldom bother myself with dogmas. I strongly believe in Steve Job's speech at Stanford University. I hope to lead others by example, inspire them to do the same and empower the decisions they have to make in their lives. Reach me at sgBen.com.

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