Always do everything you ask of those you command.
– General George S. Patton
When I was an instructor at the Air Force’s Officer Training School, I noticed the uncanny way the groups of officer trainees we led became mirrors of their Flight Commander. It was a little scary, really. If the Flight Commander was cerebral, quiet, competitive, gung-ho, or whatever: so were his or her trainees. During our Instructor Qualification Course the seasoned Flight Commanders warned us this would happen, but to see it in action was startling to me as a brand new instructor. It also impressed upon me the weight of my responsibility to set the example.
Military Leaders Know Setting the Example is Key
Setting the example is crucial to motivating others to follow, because people pay far more attention to what leaders do than what we say. Like it or not, people will emulate their leader if they respect them. A key to earning and maintaining the team’s respect is setting a good example.
It’s a truism of military leadership that we must never ask our teams to do anything we’re not willing to do themselves. We drill this idea into young military leaders from the very beginning. We expect young lieutenants and sergeants to set the example for the troops they lead in what they say and how they act. A lieutenant cannot expect his troops to follow the rules if he doesn’t, and he cannot expect loyalty if he doesn’t demonstrate loyalty both up and down the chain of command. That’s the essence of setting an example: to model exactly what we expect of those we lead. A model is much more compelling than any speech or motivational poster.
Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.
Setting the example works both ways, of course. If you are late or sloppy or disloyal, your team will soon follow suit. Leaders who fail to recognize their own responsibility to follow their own rules and set a good example become responsible for their own failure. I’ve seen many high performing team descend into mediocrity when a poor leader replaces a good one. People naturally rise to the expectations of the leader, and the example leaders set for the team are their expectations of them.
It’s Really Not Hard
Setting a good example is really not very hard, we just have to possess the discipline to do what we say. Be on time, follow your own dress code, follow the company travel rules, etc. These are simple ways to make sure your team understands what’s expected of them. Believe me, your people are watching your actions–they notice the good behavior. Besides just setting expectations, there’s also the added benefit of being able to enforce the rules with a clear conscience. People will accept correction from a leader they know is only asking them to do what the leader does him- or herself.
Setting a good example is the keystone to leadership. Set a good one and see your team soar!
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of six books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.