The True Meaning Of Leading By Example

By: Dharmesh Shah ~

New managers are often told it’s best to “lead by example”. Rightfully so – but like most platitudes, “lead by example” doesn’t give you particularly instructive action.

So, let’s dig in.

First lets talk about the idea of “personal brand.”

A great personal brand isn’t an artificial construct. A great personal brand – like a great company brand – is authentic. Your personal brand is simply a snapshot view of who you really are. Yet thousands of people try to use tactics to “create” a personal brand as if it’s a product or commodity when a personal brand is built on genuine statements and authentic actions.

lead_by_exampleWhen a personal brand is an authentic extension of the real person and not an artificial construct, it inspires trust. Which brings us back to  leading by example. Leaders aren’t given respect; they earn the respect of the people they lead. Leaders are not automatically trusted; they earn the trust of the people they lead. In cases where someone “inherits” a position or is given a position arbitrarily, they don’t really have trust — they have a title. Those are different things.

The best way to earn respect, to earn trust, and to earn the right to lead others is to lead not by word but by example. When I know you truly believe what you say – because your actions support what you say – then I will start to trust you. Then I will start to respect you. Then I will truly start to follow you.

Here are a few ways to lead by example. But keep in mind if you simply go through the motions everyone can tell. If you don’t believe, deep inside, that what you’re doing is important – that what you’re doing is the right thing – then don’t do it. Everyone around you will be able to tell. People have a highly sensitive Insincerity Meter that immediately calls bull-crap.

GSD (Get stuff done).

Every company preaches action and execution, yet in many there is a major disconnect: “leaders” don’t actually produce; they ensure production. Many “leaders” care more about how things are done than about finding ways to do things better. Many leaders care more about their positions than their work.

Every day make sure you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Sure, you might have administrative duties. Sure, you might be in charge of developing big-picture strategies. Fine. But never forget that works requires work – and getting things done.

Don’t say execution is important. Show execution is important.

Live your culture.

At HubSpot we aren’t big on executive perks. But we are big on teamwork and cross-pollinization. To do this, we have a random seat shuffle. So, every 3 months or so, you’ll be sitting in a different spot then you were before. Oh, and nobody has offices.

We don’t just have an open door policy, we have a no door policy.

That extends to me (I’m one of the founders), my co-founder, our COO, our CMO… to everyone on the team.

Would it be easy to assert that I need an office since I sometimes need to have sensitive or confidential conversations? Of course it would. But it is also easy to simply find somewhere private to talk when I need to.

Ultimately every company’s culture is, or at least should be, an extension of its leadership. (Of course if you aren’t actively creating your culture, one will be created for you – and it may not be one you like.)

Mission statements, value statements, and culture codes are fine, but if you are not seen as a living embodiment of your culture, then all those efforts will be wasted.

You should be seen as of the culture, never above the culture

Take blame and share credit.

With authority comes responsibility – at all levels of an organization. Want your employees to feel a sense of responsibility and accountability? Take the hits you deserve.

And then take some hits you don’t deserve.

Say a customer gets angry. Or a client complains about poor service. Or someone in another part of the organization criticizes one of your team’s efforts. Whatever the issue, regardless of who is actually at fault, don’t throw others under the bus. Throw yourself under the bus. Accept the criticism or abuse. You can handle it – even if you don’t deserve it.

And, when things go surprisingly well, always share credit. Chances are, you didn’t pull it off alone. Nothing breaks trust more than when a leader takes full credit for what everyone knows was a shared effort.

When you take blame and share credit, a couple of things happen. Your employees know you ultimately feel responsible for mistakes and share recognition with others when things go right.

And, when it’s their turn, they will take blame and share credit too.

The cycle will continue, because selfless acts are contagious.

Trust so you can be trusted.

Things change when companies grow. More employees result in increased complexity, more mistakes, and greater ambiguity. So in response you create guidelines and policies… And trust goes out the window – because policies implicitly say, “We’re putting this in place because, well, we don’t trust you to do the right thing.”

At HubSpot we don’t have pages and pages of policies and procedures. We try to guide our decisions with three words: Use Good Judgment andWe define “good judgment” as favoring the company over the individual, and the customer over the company. It looks like this:

Customer > Company > Individual 

Sound complicated? It’s not: if an action is good for you but bad for the company, it’s not right. If an action is good for the company, but not for the customer, it’s dubious. (In the long term, what is bad for the customer is always bad for your company.)

Trust is based on action, not words. Give people the freedom to make meaningful decisions, to operate in a way that is most effective for them, and to simply do the right thing, and they will trust you.

Why? Because first you trusted them.

Dharmesh Shah is founder/CTO of HubSpot. His current passion project is inbound.organ online community that hopes to help a million marketers learn, grow and connect. (Community currently has 24,279 members. You can join for free).