Good leaders lead by example rather than by edict

April 2, 2012
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As we approach the political season in earnest, I would recommend that those seeking votes should remember one important fact: Although words and promises can be compelling, the true measure of a person is not what they say but what they do. 

Following a leader’s actions is much easier than believing promises, especially if they change based on the audience. We must measure our leaders not by what they say but rather by what they do (or what their actions initiate). A zebra does not lose its stripes nor does a leopard lose its spots. Why are we so quick to believe a politician will change from the position he or she has established?

Closer to home, how can you expect your employees to adhere to an “8 to 5” schedule if your own day frequently begins at 8:15 or ends at 4:30? Forget about the fact that you might have been doing company business the previous night, or that lunch was more of a thought than an action, or that breaks are not part of the daily routine: People see you coming in late, or leaving early, and expect that to apply to them, too.

Parents tell their children to obey the rules as they break the speed limit driving them somewhere, to respect their teachers as they complain about how their “boss that doesn’t know anything,” and to take time to enjoy life when they are “too busy doing their own thing” to play catch in the yard. 

We are not perfect, but some rules should apply to our interactions with others (and to those our political leaders have with us). If we wish to be who we truly are rather than presenting ourselves as what we wish we could be, it would be wise to remember:

Words are but whispers when compared to the shouts of our actions. We more often believe what we see than what we hear. Regardless of how you work with people, those around you establish their perception of you by what you do — by how you act, not by the things you say about yourself. We may try to reinvent ourselves with words, polish and packaging but we are truly only what we appear to be.

Look for the good in others, publicly praising their positive actions and interactions while privately raising their attitude and abilities. People usually see what others do wrong, rarely recognizing or acknowledging what they do right. Parents rarely say to their children, “You are really being a good shopper today!” Rather it is, “Don’t touch,” or “Wait until we get home,” or “I’m never going to bring you shopping again!” Though we need to address and constructively correct negative behavior, we should make an effort to acknowledge and verbalize appreciation for things done well.

It is better to compromise than to criticize — to live in the house you have built through your actions than in the rubble of another’s house you destroyed with your words. Criticism is destructive. Competent leaders do not tear others down to make themselves look better. One cannot lead pushing up from the bottom; leadership leverages the abilities of all to move the group into a singular direction that benefits the whole.

Look inwardly when assigning blame. People often defend their inappropriate actions by shifting blame to others. Rarely does an individual come out and say, “It was my fault.” Far more often it is, “Sam over there did something much worse than I would ever do. Address him before you talk to me.”

When we measure ourselves against the actions of others, we will never truly see value in what we may have done (nor the full cost of what we may have done wrong). We see only the relative value of how our actions compare to another’s. Far too many politicians blame all failures on their predecessors while claiming all success as being their own. Viewing life through the lens of relativity will never provide fulfillment, only “better than” whomever we are comparing ourselves to but possibly worse than someone else until we tear them down, also. 

Judge yourself using the same standards you apply to others. The greatest leaders of our times would never ask others to do what they would not do themselves. Truly great generals lead their troops into battle rather than following them. Parents must “walk the talk” for their children. Managers cannot expect full productivity without giving it themselves. Politicians cannot expect hollow promises to produce actionable success. 

Rather than distributing consequences, we should seek truth. We should focus more on what we are doing than on what others may not be doing. We should lead by example rather than by edict, expecting others to do as we do rather than as we tell them to act. Were we to act more honestly, perhaps we could expect our elected officials to do the same, as if they were living in a glass house with no shades or blinds to silence their words or mask their actions.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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