Good Leaders Really Lead by Example

A while ago a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled, “If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will, Too” popped up in my email. As a learning and development professional I have facilitated a lot of leadership and management development programs and the following phrases almost always came up during these sessions: “lead by example” and “walk the talk”.

The HBR article addresses this topic from a really interesting perspective – it addresses two topics where managers unintentionally send a message to their teams: Working After Hours and Multitasking in Meetings. Here’s a quote from the article, “…even great managers are not fully aware of how their work habits can impact those they supervise. Our latest research allows us to begin quantifying how these habits can cause significant — and often undesirable — ripple effects.”

In all of the leadership and management development sessions I’ve facilitated or in any of the coaching I have done, I always tell the leaders and managers that they set an example. It doesn’t matter if we focus on the article’s two areas or others – as managers we set an example for our employees; as leaders we set an example with those we engage with. What we say sends a message and what we do sends a message. And, sometimes we send mixed messages.

What do I mean?

As a manager, I’ve had conversations with my employees about my expectations. I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t expect them to work at night or on the weekend. However, I have regularly worked outside normal business hours. Sometimes I mask it (I hold off sending the email until the morning or schedule it to send at a normal time), but other times I don’t. Honestly I forget to mask it sometimes, and other times I decide to be transparent about why I am working at a non-standard business time. However, if I do the latter, I specifically tell the person that I don’t expect an immediate response. Now, after reading the article and thinking about what I have personally experienced with my own managers, I wonder if my words and actions really sent a mixed message. Was I putting some people in a position where they felt they needed to respond outside of normal business hours? I know I have had managers who have made me feel that way.

I don’t want to down play working outside of normal business hours, but this is minor compared to other things I’ve personally experienced or heard about from colleagues and clients.

…a manager saying something in a meeting with their team that is demeaning to another manager or team

…a manager saying something inappropriate in a meeting (offensive language, inappropriate joke, etc.)

…a leader gossiping about someone who is on a committee with them

…a leader yelling at people who have volunteered to be part of a project or group

If we are the manager or leader doing what is mentioned above, aren’t we telling those around up that this behavior is acceptable? Even if we are specific about our expectations, do our actions do speak louder than our words?

We really do need to lead by example and walk the talk. I know it isn’t easy, but it is something we need to do. We also need to hold ourselves accountable for leading by example and walking the talk.

Back to the article; it has some valuable information, including what we can do about the areas it addresses. It is worth a read! I am including a little more to entice you to read it.

Regarding Working After Hours, the article says, “this sends the signal, “When I’m on, you need to be too”...Intentionally or not, managers that frequently work late nights are signaling an expectation of similar behavior to their teams, and their teams are responding in kind.”

Regarding Multitasking in Meetings, the article says, “this sends the signal, “It’s OK to not pay attention”… it means we have gaps in our understanding of what took place. That can lead to different interpretations of a decision, missed opportunities to provide critical guidance, or inconsistent follow through on action agreements. Beyond that, multitasking can signal to others that we don’t value their time or their contributions.”


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