Leading by Example

Leading by Example

Travis Schultz

My 11-year-old son came home from school late last year with some homework that was cause for a family discussion. Where normally such family meetings are required for solving (relatively simple) mathematical problems, or the best way to complete a task or project, on this occasion it was far more serious. This was preparation for a talk. And not just any talk, but a presentation to the class on what it means to be a good leader and role model.

To my best little mate, being a leader is mostly about setting the right example and acting in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on other people. To him, selfish behaviour, belittling conduct, name-calling or putting others down is the opposite of good leadership. It seems that to an 11-year-old, the litmus test for poor leadership is whether there are tears in the playground!

But it got me thinking. In business and in life, we so often put on a pedestal people who behave badly, have little respect for others’ feelings, and even those who display arrogant and narcissistic personality traits. In some cases, these people not only get promoted to Boards and CEO roles but become successful politicians and in some cases, populist Presidents of the United States! So why is it that we believe that being a good role model or leader involves collaboration, teamwork and good emotional intelligence yet some of the most successful leaders of companies and countries are those whose behaviour is the antithesis of good leadership?

I recently came across an article written by Bill Taylor, that was published in the Harvard Business Review. It was entitled “If humility is so important, why are leaders so arrogant?” and it’s a research piece that really resonated with me.

According to Mr Taylor, “Humility can feel soft at a time when problems are hard; it can make leaders appear vulnerable when people are looking for answers and reassurances. Of course, that’s precisely its virtue: the most effective business leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers; the world is just too complicated for that. They understand that their job is to get the best ideas from the right people, whomever and wherever those people may be.”

I don’t for one moment disagree with this, but if that’s a truism, why is it that some of the most successful corporate leaders are narcissistic, self-indulged thugs?

Is the difference between a manager and a leader simply their intuitive understanding of the need to engage a team? Or is it the presence, persona or gravitas of a personality or their position?

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but one thing I do know is that in a team environment, a good lashing of humility by the leaders goes a long way to engaging the team. If the boss checks his or her ego at the door, it’s a far more pleasant environment for everyone! Or is my little mate’s case, it can make the playground a “tear free zone”!


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