I was interviewing a candidate the other day for a management position at a non-profit association that helps entrepreneurs learn and grow. I threw my normal bevy of questions at them about how they maintain relationships with colleagues, what is their leadership style is and how they handle conflict. In the first thirty minutes of the interview the candidate said that they “lead by example” half a dozen times. The last time they said it, I politely interrupted them…
[ENTER MY BRAIN]… I am father of three beautiful, amazing, exhausting, devilish daughters ages six, four and not-yet one. I am also someone who can, on occasion, throw out an ill-timed swear word, maybe starting with “S” or “D” or “F” and ending with an exclamation point. In my defense, these words are not aimed at my children or at anyone in particular (except on Sunday’s when the Miami Dolphins are playing in which case they are very pointedly aimed at individuals). I should also note that living in Europe, radio stations do not play the PC versions of songs nor are there any bleeps. This means my children have a more advanced vocabulary that others could classify as “inappropriate”. Regretfully, my eldest daughter has been the first to test out the waters on using these words. As a mildly responsible parent, I have sat down and explained to her that these are not words she is allowed to use… and she tests… These are not words that are nice and they hurt people… and she tests… These are words that will get you put in time out… and she tests…
Here is the point. My daughter is an intelligent young lady. She speaks three languages fluently. She gets good grades in school, is involved in after-school activities, and she pretty much farts rainbows and sunshine in my opinion.
AND she knows how to swear.
While it does not happen often, she repeatedly ignores my demands to stop. For any parent reading this, you are obviously thinking, “Well no sh!t genius, she learned by watching you”. And indeed that is the natural answer. Kids don’t do what you tell them to do, they do what they see you doing. If I don’t eat healthy, my kids won’t either. If I don’t show an interest in sports, my kids won’t either. Kids with abusive parents are six times more likely to abuse their children later in life. The patterns go on and on. This is no different than leading in other environments. If you show your team respect, they will show it to others. If you bring a positive attitude, so will they. If you keep them in the dark, are consistently late, gossip about colleagues… guess what, they will too. Good or bad, your example will be followed.
So please tell me why you keep saying that you lead by example? Of course you lead by example, as a matter of fact that is the only way anyone ever leads. Good or bad, the word followers means that they will follow. It is why, how, and where you are leading that matters.
Now most leaders aren’t going to argue with these points, but how many leaders are looking in the mirror when their teams go wrong? How many are making changes to the way that they operate to reflect the changes they would like to see in their company’s culture? Personally, I have been incredibly fortunate to have leadership roles with some very successful teams. I have also been fortunate to be supported and coached through notable failures in my career. Here are some lessons that I have learned:
How to handle a teammate that isn’t meeting deadlines: Am I doing what I said I was going to do? Am I being responsive? I start there and then talk to them about the importance of credibility.
How to handle a teammate that stops caring: First I listen to them, show them I care. Then I talk to them about finding what their positive triggers are and focusing on those.
How to handle a teammate that gossips: I stop listening to it and ask them to stop. Then talk to them about how negativity is contagious in an organization and that is not our team’s culture.
How to handle a teammate that calls their direct reports “subordinates”: First I make sure I call them “teammates” no matter where they are in the pecking order. Then I talk to them about how validation and elevation can motivate a team.
How to handle a daughter that keeps swearing: I have no idea, any suggestions? I think I just have to come to terms that I may have already ruined her for life.
Now look, this is just one part of leadership. There are also times when you feel you are laying down the path and teammates aren’t following. Odds are that you also don’t work in a vacuum. There are external influences and circumstances that will dictate followership. Self-reflection and action is not the ONLY way to lead teams, it is just the place to start. [EXIT MY BRAIN]…
… I asked the candidate to be specific with their examples. How do you listen, how do you react, how to do resolve conflict? Talk to me about the examples you lead by, and I can tell what type of leader you are going to be.