#423  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 9          September 1999

Leading by Example
by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, Ph.D.

Mr. Kouzes is chairman of Tom Peters Group Learning Systems in Palo Alto, California and Dr. Posner is Dean of the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University.  They are the  authors of The Leadership Challenge, Credibility, and Encouraging the Heart (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995, 1993, 1999).

Are you setting a positive tone for your organization through your own example as a leader?  Here are some searching questions to ask yourself and find out.

Leaders are role models whose behaviors send powerful messages throughout the organization about what is and what is not important.  Leaders set the standard by which other people calibrate their own choices and behaviors.   Do you lead by example? 

Obviously, to begin with, you must be clear about what you believe in and what you aspire to achieve.  But more important than any espoused values, are your actions, because when in doubt, people believe your actions over your words, without fail. Every action you take, or don’t take, is information about your values and your seriousness about those values.

Moments of Truth

Jan Carlzon, as president of Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS), colorfully described leading by example as "Moments of Truth." He claimed that in his business there were more than 50 million moments of truth a year, representing the annual number of passenger-employee interactions. Each moment of truth is an opportunity for each SAS employee to demonstrate personal commitment to providing outstanding customer service. That interaction says more about the company's real values than all the corporate credos in the world.

Here are some other clues:

How do you spend your time?

Time allocation is the truest test of what people really believe is important.  For example, while you say that quality is important, the amount of time you spend on quality issues is the truest test of your commitment to quality.  What our constituents say: “Put your time where your mouth is.  Walk the talk.”

What questions do you ask?

Questions not only highlight particular issues and concerns but also point people in the "right" direction. Pay attention to the questions you’re asking: They send messages about whether your focus, for example, is on control of operating costs, on quality, or on market share. On the other hand, remember that the questions you’re asked are also an indicator of other people’s interests and concerns.

What do you recognize and reward?

Rewards send tangible messages to people about what to pay attention to. If you place a premium on innovation and risk-taking, for example, you must be willing to "promote" in a variety of ways those who innovate. You must be attentive to how people are made to feel when they take risks. Are people rewarded or punished when they fail? Your actions in such situations set the tone for future innovation and risk-taking. Who is rewarded, who is promoted and why, are among the clearest ways in which you demonstrate your seriousness about a specific set of corporate principles.

Here are two other ways you can develop your own capacity as a role model for others:

Scrutinize your current routines.

Are these routines or habitual patterns of behavior consistent with what you say is most important to you and to your organization? Noted management consultant Tom Peters has said, "Attention is all there is. You are as good as--or as bad as--your calendar." Start spending 20 to 25 percent of your time on your most important strategic priority. Book up your calendar for the next four months with visible activities demonstrating your interest and concern about this priority. Find someone or some department that’s doing what you wish everyone else was doing, or at least moving in the right direction. Hold them up as models and make them heroes. Let everyone get a clear idea about what you’re looking for and how rewarding you can make doing the right thing

Be on the lookout for learning opportunities.

Often these occur in the peaks and valleys of our experiences. At the summit, for example, you need to remind others of what they have accomplished and why the journey was worth the effort, and provide them with perspective on how this achievement was a step in the right direction. In times of despair, you need to make the struggle noble and reframe any setbacks as learning experiences.

In short, “words are cheap.”  What you do says volumes more about what’s important to you and to your organization than all the words, speeches, and mottos plastered on corporate offices and walls.

© 1999 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner.  All rights reserved.

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