The Most Powerful Leadership Tool You Have: Your Own Example

Leadership is tricky. It’s more than the title you hold within your company or how many people you manage, but how far does its definition reach? What is leadership? What makes a leader, and how do you improve your own ability to lead?

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Plenty of definitions exist explaining what a leader is, and we have the entire history of human civilization to look to for examples of different kinds of leaders and the traits they shared. And you could study each of these examples to come to your own conclusions about what leadership truly is — but if you did that, you’d probably never have any time to lead.

So what I’ve done is ask around and listen in on social media conversations to see what people today think of leadership. A popular quote I’ve heard from others in my space is “The best leadership tool you have is your own example.” It got me thinking about the power of personal examples and how you can set the tone for your company through your own example.

If you’re careless in your relationships and interactions with people, your example isn’t going to be one that anyone wants to imitate. Instead, leading by example requires you to be self-aware and work toward setting an example that your team members (and even your peers or competitors) are excited to follow.

Your own example is the most powerful leadership tool you have. If you want to strengthen that tool, here are five things you can do:

1. Get in the trenches (without getting trapped in the weeds)

As a kid, one of my favorite business stories was hearing about Sam Walton putting on an apron and packing groceries so he could help his employees and show them he’d been in their shoes. (And, by all accounts, he was a hell of a grocery packer.) As weird as it might seem that I was into business stories as a young kid, it’s something that’s stayed with me all this time.

When you, as a leader, step into someone else’s role, two really important things happen: You actually get better at your own job because you remember what it’s like to be in the trenches, and you show your employees that you get (and care about) what they do for the company. I’m not encouraging leaders to get trapped in the weeds, but when you see an opportunity to humanize yourself as someone who isn’t above certain tasks, take it.

2. Eliminate superiority barriers

When I was a 20-year-old intern, the executives I worked with always got the first pick of everything and left the scraps for the rest of us. It was never inspiring; honestly, it was kind of demoralizing.

So when my co-founder and I started Influence & Co., we wanted to avoid those barriers that come up between senior leaders and company employees. At our offices’ desk drafts to choose new desks, we’ve picked from the remaining desks, not the other way around — or, worse, stayed tucked away in private, unwelcoming offices. Breaking down those barriers was one way of showing the whole team that everyone is valued and included, not just high-level execs or senior leaders.

3. Forget your insecurities

It’s natural to want to please people around you, make them happy, and get them to like you. Even the coolest, most “I don’t care if anyone likes me”-leaning leader will admit (privately, maybe) that it does bother him a little bit when someone on his team doesn’t like him.

Being a good leader doesn’t necessarily lead to basking in endless popularity. Even if your example is a great one and your company is a huge success, there will always be someone who just doesn’t like you that much — and that’s fine. You have to let go of that insecurity and ask yourself, “Are my actions and decisions determined by what’s best for this company?” If the answer is “yes,” don’t get too hung up on being liked by everyone.

4. Challenge yourself and those around you to become better

Leading by example doesn’t automatically mean everything you do is right. The biggest wins your company ever sees will sometimes come from your teammates looking around at how they’ve been led and what decisions were reached and offering their own input to help shape things next time.

You have to be willing to grade yourself and invite others into that feedback process to become a better leader and set the best example. Your culture should be one that challenges everyone to think about what’s best for the company, not one that limits them to only thinking the way you do. That’s how you prevent innovation. Your example could be great, but you have to remain open to other ideas and challenge your team to always do better.

5. Prove the impossible is possible

Consistently raising the bar, innovating your company, and knocking your goals out of the park over and over again is challenging on its own — and it’s even harder when your employees have no examples to look to from their own leadership team. You just can’t expect that from your employees without giving them an example for guidance.

To encourage your team to try new things and achieve big goals, you need to take on those seemingly impossible challenges yourself, too. Show others how to think outside the box by doing so yourself. Taking on those challenges (and achieving what you set out to) shows your team that hard work pays off and innovation is valued.

Whether you’re an experienced leader, someone new to the responsibility, or just remembering leaders from previous companies, I’m sure you can relate to these stories. You already know how important a leader’s personal example is to her company’s success and her employees’ engagement. Give these tactics a try, and improve your example — for your company, your team, and yourself.

John Hall, the CEO of Influence & Co., a keynote speaker, and the author of "Top of Mind."

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