Leadership by Example

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“There is no leadership without leadership by example.”

I heard that bit of wisdom from the lips of Captain James Westley Ayers, USMC. But I only remember the quote because of the example he set.

My father said that, “You’re alive as long as they tell stories about you.” Many of us who knew Captain Ayers are still telling stories about him half a century after we experienced his leadership. The big lesson for me was: leaders care for their people.

That’s Marine doctrine. A leader has two jobs. You must accomplish the mission and you must care for the people. But this is more than “leaders eat last.” This is a way of thinking about your responsibility for the people you lead.

One set of Captain Ayers stories revolve around the “meat he couldn’t use.” Our unit had lots of young, married Marines who were living off base, trying to make it on the couple hundred bucks the Marine Corps paid us, and whatever their spouse could bring in. By the middle of the month, it was always hard times. It was time for peanut butter sandwiches and fried baloney for dinner.

And then Captain Ayers would show up at the door. He always asked, “I wonder if you can help me?”

The problem was something like “I’ve got a whole bunch of meat I can’t use, and would you take some off my hands, as a favor?” Sometimes he bought more than he could handle. Sometimes his freezer had broken. Sometimes he bought all that meat for a reunion that got cancelled. Whatever it was, he asked if you would be kind enough to take some meat, say enough for a couple of months of meals, off his hands.

By the time I encountered Captain Ayers, the Marine Corps had drilled into me the idea that a leader‘s goal is to accomplish the mission. Captain Ayers showed me what it means to care for your people. Most of that caring wasn’t dramatic. He encouraged and suggested. He told you the truth.

I experienced that when I wanted to apply for a program that required his recommendation. He spent a half hour telling me that he wouldn’t do it because I wasn’t ready and explaining why. Then he took another half hour to tell me what I had to do to be ready in a year.

I haven’t always lived up to Captain Ayers’ example, but it’s always been there as a shining standard for me. That’s what leadership by example is all about.

When I got out of the Marines, and started in business, I encountered something very different. I won’t give his name, because I hope he’s reformed since I knew him, I call him “My Worst Boss Ever.”

Worst Boss Ever’s example wasn’t so great. He was selfish, haughty, and mean. He relished catching people doing something wrong and belittling them in public.

Leadership by Example Is Like A Superpower

Leadership by example is a superpower. It influences the people you lead and affects the choices they make. Like any superpower, you can use it for good or not.

The people who lead you early in your career have a huge impact on the way you lead. My research in police agencies produced “leadership trees” of good supervisors who had learned their craft working for other good supervisors early in their career.

You’re Going to Set the Example, So Set A Good One

I was fortunate. I experienced Captain Ayers and other effective leaders before I experienced my Worst Boss Ever. When I encountered him, I knew he was a jerk, and how he acted did not model the leader I wanted to become.

You don’t have any choice about setting the example. That’s built into human nature. The only choice you have is whether you will set a good example or a bad one.

Bottom Line

There is no leadership without leadership by example. You don’t have a choice about that. Your only choice is whether you will set a good example or a bad one.

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