How To Lead By Example

Image Credit: Suits by Unsplash (

Image Credit: Suits by Unsplash (

September is leadership month at Project Management Hacks. I will be publishing a variety of articles including interviews with thought leaders who have ideas, habits and inspiration to help us become better. It’s going to be a great month and I’m looking forward to it.

Leading by example is a well known leadership concept. I know that it is not a new idea. As James Clear recently explained old ideas are powerful. Leading by example is worth revisiting because I know I can do better on this front. I would guess that many of us, if we reflect on our work, could think of a few ways where we could lead better by example. As you improve the art of leading by example, your credibility will dramatically improve.

Leading By Example: Lessons From History

As long time readers will you, I have been a student of history for many years. Last year, I wrote Project Management Ideas From The First World War and project management techniques from the history of the telegraph. Continuing that theme, let’s consider a few examples of leading by example from history.

Winston Churchill: Leading On The Front Lines

During the First World War, Winston Churchill served in the British government. Unfortunately, some of his strategy decisions did not produce results. When he left Cabinet, he made a decision that surprised many of his former colleagues.

Churchill rejoined the Army and went to serve on the front lines of the Western Front. His war service included personally leading his soldiers into the combat. This decision gave him a deeper understanding of the meaning of modern warfare.

John D. Rockefeller: Leading By Managing The Books

Today, many of us equate the name of Rockefeller with great wealth and philanthropy. None of that wealth would have been possible without Rockefeller’s commitment to business. As a young clerk at Hewitt and Tuttle in Cleveland in the 1850s, Rockefeller closely managed the books.

Rockefeller biographer Ron Chernow summarizes Rockefeller’s approach to his work. “He closely reviewed the bills, confirming the validity of each item and carefully adding up the totals. He pounced on errors of even a few cents and reacted with scornful amazement when the boss next door handed his clerk a lengthy, unexamined plumbing bill and blithely said, ‘Please pay this bill.’ Rockefeller was appalled by such cavalier indifference.” (Page 46, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr by Ron Chernow)

Steve Jobs: Leading By A Passion For Great Products

When I read “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, a theme came up over and over again. Jobs deeply cared about the design and quality of Apple products. His passion shone through in several ways. He paid close attention to the design of the Apple Store. That attention meant Apple Stores become a destination, in contrast to most retailers that sold technology products.

His passion also came through in his memorable product launches. For many Apple fans and students of presentations, Steve Jobs 2007 iPhone launch demonstrates passion and excitement for one’s product.

 As these examples show, there are many different ways to lead by example. Churchill’s example shows that one can recover from leadership setbacks by taking on surprising assignments. Rockefeller’s attention to financial details resonates with me because of my expertise in the banking industry. Jobs shows how passion and excitement for great products makes a difference.

Get Started Leading By Example

How exactly do we get started with this leadership strategy? Your approach will depend on your context. As a project manager, you will have certain options. As an individual contributor, you may not have a formal leadership title. Yet, there are still plenty of ways you can lead. As we head into the fall, use these ideas to improve your leadership.

Choose A Principle

The starting point in leading by example is to choose a principle. One approach is to look at problems your department is facing. If your company is facing problems with expenses, you may choose the principle of “close financial management.” If meetings are constantly delayed because people do not show up on time, you may choose the principle of punctuality.

Action Step: Choose the principle that you will live.

Live The Principle For 30 Days

As Matt Cutts explains in a TED Talk, Try something new for 30 days, thirty day challenges are a great way to improve your life. Changing yourself is difficult, but many of us can manage a change for a short period of time. If the principle you have selected feels daunting, start small using Tiny Habits. As you get started, expect to face some problems. At this stage, there is no need to share what you are working on.

Tip: Use an Excel file or a notebook to write a few notes each day about your progress.

Action Step: Live your principle for 30 days

Share The Principle

After you have finished your thirty day challenge, you can start to share your insights with other people. You could give a short speech about your success at your local ToastMasters club. Or you could share what you have learned with a colleague. Sharing your example at this point is powerful because you will have a thirty day track record. As a personal example, I set the challenge to do 100 pushups a day starting in July. I completed the challenge and have kept up the habit.

Action Step: Share your principle with another person you work with.

Notice Other Leadership Examples

The final step of this process is to notice how people are leading by example around you. This practice is valuable for three reasons. First, this practice encourages you to look for leadership around you. Second, this practice gives you further ideas you can use to improve yourself. Finally, this practice gives you recognition ideas.

In management roles, there is a common practice to only notice problems. Sometimes, some people act like they are playing Whac-A-Mole – constantly hitting problems. By noticing good examples, you will be able to recognize people. You can send thank you cards (I buy mine at Indigo), send emails or thank someone for their good work in a meeting.

Action Step: Notice and show recognition for someone in your organization who is living a good principle.

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3 thoughts on “How To Lead By Example

  1. Hi Bruce,

    Great post! I especially liked the example about Churchill. It’s one thing to be a leader who’s comfortable getting your hands dirty, but to literally work in the trenches is quite another thing altogether.

    Leading by example is huge in a project environment. PMs typically don’t have any solid line reports to them, meaning that you can’t hire or fire people. Given this, it’s very important to be able to influence people in order to get the behaviours you want and expect. Leadership, and being a role model is key for that.

    Again, great post. Thanks so much for it. Looking forward to more.