Lead by example: to lead change, leaders must change from within

We’ve all heard the phrase: “Lead by example.” In battle, the troops must see the Army Officer in front of them, leading them boldly towards their objective. The leader exemplifies courage, selfless service, and inspires trust in his followers.

Example-setting is the only way a leader will get his followers to buy into his plan. Albert Schweitzer said: “Example isn’t the main thing in leadership – it is the only thing.”

Most people are visual learners, not verbal learners. Good communication makes the vision clear, and good modeling makes it come alive.

A leader must want his followers to model the desired behavior. How do you do that? How, as a leader, do you get your followers to exhibit the you want to see? The answer is simple: be a leader, not a naysayer. Leaders must lead themselves first.

To do this a leader, a manager, supervisor, team leader – whoever aspires to lead – must have self-awareness. They must know their weaknesses and their capabilities before barking out orders. But building awareness about one’s habits of thought, emotions, hopes, and behavior is a task. Leaders must know what makes them tick, their beliefs, their priorities, their aspirations, values and fears (Boaz and Fox, 2014)

Most leaders want status, but not the responsibility. Are they at that level to get more pay and more status, or to get themselves and others to buy into the organization’s mission, vision and goals?

We have a biblical example of this in Kings II Chapters 22 through 23. King Josiah ruled Judea for 31 years. When he was 18 years old, he was in the midst of a restoration project of the temple of God, where a scroll of the book of the law was found by the high priest and was given to the royal secretary to be read to King Josiah. When the king heard the words of the law, he immediately tore his robe. In the Old Testament, this was a sign of repentance, remorse, and despair. Josiah was known as a very righteous king, yet through the word of God, he repented and became aware of his own sins towards God. Here you see how the king Josiah (leader) made a change within himself (self-awareness). His internal reform brought about the internal reform of his people, which led to the restoration of God‘s covenant throughout Judea.

How inner awareness affects the leader’s outer change

People do as they see, so the leaders’ actions speak louder than words. As mentioned previously, the example isn’t the main thing – it is the only thing. Organizations that want to implement new strategies create new policies and procedures. But the new processes will fall short if the leader does not exemplify the desired change. In their research, Boaz and Fox indicate that new strategies often fall short because of a failure to inspire the “underlying mindsets and capabilities of the people who will execute [them].”

Research indicates that if the leader doesn’t role model change and maintains the status quo, the people on the ground will maintain that same motivation. (Boaz and Fox, 2014). In my Biblical example, the people saw their King change from within. All of his actions illuminated his internal change, and this motivated the people to also change and move toward transformation.

Learning to lead means cultivating awareness of self. You must be aware of your inner thoughts, character and the values that you hold firm to, regardless of the situation. Self-awareness requires you to know what makes you tick – your inner desires, your strengths and weaknesses, the interests you had as a child, and what motivates and inspires you as an adult. But in this day and age, having inner awareness of one’s self is not easy. Many voices out there harbor confusion, deception, fear, but a few voices have vision and purpose. Nevertheless, to lead others, one must lead one’s own self.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ―Aristotle

If you model the behavior you want everyone in your organization to exhibit, then change will happen without resistance. In a research study, seasoned executives with 15 or more years of experience were asked to name the critical leadership competency for successful change efforts. The answers were communication, collaboration, and commitment.

In the area of communication, the leaders explained that followers must know the “what” and the “why” of the change and understand how these align with the organization’s values. In the area of collaboration, successful leaders encourage people to work together across boundaries with other teams or departments to achieve a common goal. In the area of commitment, leaders aligned their own beliefs and behaviors to support change.

The successful leaders also had to step out of their comfort zone and not appear to be resistant or inflexible. The successful leaders embraced change by devoting time and effort to it. Those who were resistant to and negative about change were unsuccessful in implementing change in their organizations (Center for Creative Leadership, 2020).
The bottom line is that people model the behavior of their leaders. Followers (employees, team) will do what they see their leader do. General Colin Powell said it best: “You can issue all the memos and give all the motivational speeches you want, but if the rest of the people in your organization don’t see you putting forth your very best effort every single day, they won’t either.” Be an example of the change you want to see.

Derrick Darden, Ph.D. (Entrepreneur Apex)

Partner Entrepreneur Coach

Blogsites: dcdardentalks.com & tripledfoundation.com


The goal of this site is to bring a balanced research perspective of topics that relate to the workplace that targets areas such as Team building, Management and Leadership, styles, employee behavior, and appraisal systems and lots more; the topics will be from the interest of both private and public sectors. Additionally, embracing diversity is significant in an organization or business, because it promotes a comprehensive understanding of the variety of cultures, values, and lifestyle differences that make up our society. Where do all of these topics come from is the field of study in Organizational Behavior, " the study of human behavior in organizational settings, the interface between human behavior and the organization" THE WORKPLACE. As a Gulf War Veteran and Senior Army Warrant Officer who worked in the fields of logistics and in the senior ranks of Federal Acquisition as a Department of the Army civilian. I have worked in many diverse environments all of my 30 plus years serving the American people, and I know for a fact that human behavior is ever changing, sometimes minute by minute. Also, embracing diversity can reap creative results, efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity; all of which make the shareholders (American people) happy. For organizations to stay competitive in the 21st century and beyond; organizations must find ways to harness the creativity of their diverse workforces. They must be able to generate ideas among the individuals within their workforce, increase social skills, and foster an appreciation of other cultures and traditions. An organization that does not practice diversity nor invest in its employees will miss out on the most significant workforce in the world -- the American Worker
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