Lead By Example: 4 Elements of True Inspiration

UPDATED: April 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: March 9, 2021
Lead By Example: 4 Elements of True Inspiration

Do you remember being a child in school, and catching yourself gazing out the window, your mind off in a distant place? Maybe you even got in trouble for daydreaming some grand vision for yourself.

Ironically enough, the kind of thing that might earn a 12-year-old a reprimand from the teacher is a common practice among the greatest leaders I’ve been around and studied. The best leaders are always dreaming. Author Hans Finzel observed, correctly, I believe, that “the higher you go in leadership, the more your work is about the future.”

At the same time, true leaders are practical enough to know that vision without action achieves nothing. They are stewards of their vision. The temptation may be to simply communicate this vision, but the best of the best will communicate it clearly, creatively and continually while going beyond communication. The leader must also live the vision. He or she will effectively model the vision to make the picture truly come alive for the whole team.

Good leaders are conscious of the fact that they are setting the example and others will follow them, for better or worse. Your behavior can inspire others to do great things, perfectly in line with your vision, or to move in circles.

The Law of the Picture, as I call this principle, is perhaps most apparent in times of chaos and uncertainty. In challenging times, consider these insights on how to be the model of energy, passion and motivation for the people who follow you.

1. Followers are always watching you.

If you are a parent, you have probably already realized that your children are always watching what you do. They don’t miss a thing! Your children learn more from what they see you do than from anywhere else. As parents, Margaret and I realized this early. No matter what we taught our children, they insisted on behaving like us. How frustrating!

Just as children watch their parents and emulate them, so do employees watching their bosses. If the bosses come in late, then employees feel that they can, too. If the bosses cut corners, employees cut corners. People do what people see.

Followers may doubt what their leaders say, but they usually believe their actions. And they imitate it.

2. It’s easier to teach than to do.

One of my earliest challenges as a leader was to raise my level of living to the level of my teaching. I still remember the day I decided I would not teach anything I did not try to live out. That was a tough decision, but as a young leader, I was learning to embrace the Law of the Picture.

Author Norman Vincent Peale stated, “Nothing is more confusing than people who give good advice but set a bad example.” I would say a related thought is also true: Nothing is more convincing than people who give good advice and set a good example.

3. We should work to change ourselves before changing others.

To improve the performance of the team, leaders must act as change agents. However, a great danger to good leadership is the temptation to try to change others without first making changes to yourself.

As a leader, the first person I need to lead is me. The first person I should try to change is me. My standards of excellence should be higher for myself than those I set for others. To remain a credible leader, I must always work first, hardest, and longest on changing myself.

To lead any other way than by example, we send a fuzzy picture of leadership to others. If we work on improving ourselves and make that our primary mission, it will more likely inspire others to follow.

4. The most valuable gift a leader can give is being a good example.

More than anything else, employees want leaders whose beliefs and actions line up. They want good models who lead from the front.

Leadership is more caught than taught. How does one “catch” leadership? It’s contagious: You get it from watching good leaders in action! The majority of leaders emerge because of the impact made upon them by established leaders who modeled leadership and mentored them.

When I think about my leadership journey, I feel that I have been fortunate to have excellent models from whom I have “caught” various aspects of leadership—perseverance from my father, encouragement from Ken Blanchard, vision from Bill Bright, and intensity from Bill Hybel, to name only a few. As Nobel Peace Prize-winner Albert Schweitzer observed, “Example is leadership.”

Now let’s step into our daydreams of great leadership and begin to act.

What one trait is most important for a person leading you?

26% Leading by example 
19% Strong ethics and morals
17% Knowledge of the business
14% Fairness
13% Overall intelligence and competence 
10% Recognition of employees

*source: Opinion Research Corporation survey of American  workers for Ajilon Finance

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by mimagephotography/Shutterstock

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.