Don't Try This at Home: When Leading by Example Backfires

When Leading by Example Backfires

Leading by example is really important. I support it as a leadership practice.

But, unfortunately, it can also backfire on you.

In this short "vlog" (video blog) post, I describe the story of Charlie (made up name), a manager I coached and how he proudly led by example in a way that was going to backfire, big time. Learn about the unintended consequences he would have experienced and what I suggested that he try instead.

Then, let me know in the blog comments below what your takeaway or 'aha' moment was from this story - does it remind you of anything you've personally experienced? Do you have an idea for a change you should make to your leadership style? Chime in!



Halelly: Hi. I’m Halelly Azulay of TalentGrow. I wanted to share a story with you that one of my clients told me where he was explaining how leading by example really helps when you want to engender commitment for part of your staff. And when he told me this story, something about that story made me stop in my tracks. It had an unintended consequence that Charlie wasn’t aware of. So I’m going to tell you the story and see if you can guess what the unintended consequence was for Charlie, and then we’ll talk about how to fix that.

So Charlie told me, “You know, one of the things that bothered me a lot with some other managers that I’ve had is that they tell you that you have to be committed and they tell you what you’re supposed to do, but they don’t really do. They don’t walk the talk, the example.” So he said, “One of the things I do to show my commitment, to show how hard I work is that I do work often. I work at night or on the weekends. And so what I do is I send emails at night or on the weekend, trying to show my staff this example of what you do when you’re really committed.” And he said, “You know, it’s been really successful, because what I’ve found is that my staff has started sending me emails at night and on the weekend too. So they’re becoming more committed.”

Do you hear the part in the story that made me cringe? Well, in fact when I talk to people on the flipside of that story, they’re always talking about how they feel burned out and they feel like there is this expectation that they work all the time. So when I asked those people, I said, “Well, does your manager tell you that you need to work at night or on the weekends?” They’re always saying, “No, no, they never tell me that. But because they do it, I kind of feel compelled to do it too.” And Charlie’s face changed colors when I was telling him this and he said, “Yeah, I never told them to do it and I would certainly not want them to be burned out. Only if they already do it or they want to do it on their own, then that’s great. But my gosh, that’s not my intention.” Sometimes when you lead by example, you are leading them to follow your example, but there may be unintended consequences. So if, for example, you don’t want people to get burned out, which you know is what’s going to cause them to become disengaged, these very people that are hard workers who you want to become more committed to the organization are actually going to start becoming less committed. And possibly leave. That’s not what you want!

So if you have something that you want to send them at night or on the weekends, but you don’t want to send the wrong message about that is something you expect them to do, maybe you can just write the email and then set it to have a delayed delivery, which is a function that most email programs allow you to have, where it’s sent to them first thing in the morning, when they’re there at the office anyway, instead of being mailed when you wrote it. So you can write it when it’s convenient for you, but you avoid the unintended consequences if received at night, and creating that wrong intention or that wrong impression.

I hope that this story generated some ideas for you about how to make sure that you’re leading by example, but not setting the wrong example, so that it doesn't backfire on you. If you want more of these kinds of helpful tips and ideas and stories, I hope that you’ll sign up for my free newsletter. That is a great way for us to keep in touch and for me to let you know both the tips that I only put in the newsletter as well as these kind of updates via vlog or my blog, which help you become a better leader – a leader of yourself and a leader of others. Thanks for tuning in.


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