Set the Example: The First Rule of Leadership

“It’s a poor rule that won’t work both ways.”

Frederick Douglas, speech in Boston 1849


“Ay, every inch a king.”

Wm. Shakespeare, King Lear 1605


Set the Example: The First Rule of Leadership

The greatest and most lasting of disappointments in leadership are reserved for those who see themselves more privileged than those being led. The leader who dares to fail greatly is given the benefit of the doubt, but the task master with lazy habits will never be respected, even if he is skilled.

Ask any parent what his or her primary responsibility is to his or her children, and the universal response will be… to set the example. Whether a parent, a teacher, a policeman, or a politician, everyone is visible, everyone is being evaluated, and everyone has a follower, for good or ill.

This principle has a high emotional component. No one is ever really surprised by someone who, for instance, embezzles money from a charity. Thieves are among us. We are profoundly disappointed, though, because of the violation of an expressed or implied trust. And we would have just reason to be unforgiving.

The business leader is trusted until that trust is violated. The breadth of standards is wide and varied, but we should always view the standard of personal and professional demeanor through the eye of the subordinate. No one begrudges the boss a day off if the same rule applies to everyone on the team. The sum of many small violations of setting the right example will erode the leader’s authority as surely as if a crime was committed. It is the pattern of conduct that condemns the leader who acts in a thoughtless or shallow manner.

Setting the example is simple, and arguably the easiest of leadership principles to exercise, and to correct. If the team has to work late on a Friday night, you better be there with them. If the organization has an annual United Way drive, you should follow the proscribed giving guidelines, willingly, without cynicism.

When being constructive in criticism, recognize your own responsibility for any failure to meet a commitment or deadline. You cannot hang the whole team out to dry.

If there exists dress or grooming standards, meet or exceed them. The small carelessness of non-adherence to policy will show in your people’s performance. If you don’t follow the little rules, how can you hold others accountable to the big ones?

Lastly, you should be friendly with everyone. But you are not friends. You and your team are working toward achieving a goal, and friendship should never get in the way. A certain method for failure is fraternizing with a select few on your team. The outsiders will resent their exclusion.


(Originally published April 2016)

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