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Lead by the Right Example

We’ve all heard that leaders should lead by example; that people pay more attention to our deeds than our words. This is completely true. What is implied by this truth, but not always articulated, is that people will follow whatever example we set. To be a remarkable leader then, we must make conscious choices to set the right examples – to lead in directions we want people to follow. The Caterpillars Processionary caterpillars are an unusual species. They travel one after the other, head to tail in their search for food.

It is because of this behavior that Jean Henri Fabre, the French entomologist, conducted an experiment. He placed processionary caterpillars around the rim of a teacup one after the other in a circle. In the tea cup he placed their favorite foods, inches from their current location. Through instinct and the strength of habit, the ring of caterpillars circled the teacup for seven days, until they died from exhaustion and starvation. They died with the food they were searching for just inches away.

Because of their nature and this arrangement they all assumed someone else was leading. While we as humans are more insightful, complex and intelligent, our behavior, sadly, often mimics that of the processionary caterpillar. We follow our leaders and habits blindly, without questioning if our direction will get us where we want to go. If we are leading we often rely too much on instinct and habit. Perhaps worse, if we aren’t the assigned leader don’t think at all, assuming those who are leading are doing it well. Perhaps they are. Or perhaps you are collectively lining your own teacup. Following blindly is dangerous enough for us as individuals, but can be even more devastating for us as leaders. As leaders we are asked to lead people to a desired future. It is rightly expected of us to do that with good information and a reasoned approach.

The Quick Trip Many years ago I worked in a business with very difficult economics. There was an opportunity to make a significant sale to a new Customer who happened to be located in Hawaii. As a part of the negotiation for this long term supply of product, they wanted to meet with our General Manager. Our General Manager flew from San Francisco early one morning, and with the advantage of the time zones, was able to meet with the Customer all day. He then went back to the airport and flew home on the red eye. He saved some money, no hotel stay, etc. – an important consideration in our tough business climate. But the more important reason for the quickness of his trip was that he wanted to lead by example. He told me later, “It was important for people to know that I went for the business, and not a mini vacation.” The example he set made a difference for those he led.

Through his simple act, people re-focused on ways to improve the business and save money. Steve clearly led by example. I could give you many other examples – some big and historic and others seldom mentioned – to illustrate the power of a leader’s correct example. Your task though is to take what you already know, that people follow the actions of leaders and not their words, and use it to your advantage. Stop today to review the direction you are heading as a leader. Review the choices before you and make the best one, based not on comfort or habit, like the caterpillars, but based on the future result you desire. Make your choice and step boldly forward in that direction. The combination of bold decision and action aligned with your words will be powerful, and will allow you to move people, and therefore your organization, in the right direction.


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