Why Leading By Example Is The Worst Type of Leadership

I’ve always believed that if you worked hard and that hard work was visible to your team, they would follow that example.

I was wrong.

For years my leadership style could be described as leading by example. In my mind it was simple. Show up as the best example of what you where looking for in a team and that would resonate through the organization.

The problem with this approach is that people don’t learn by watching alone. They learn by doing.

We all learn better when we go beyond just observing. We learn best by doing the things that will craft new behaviors. Think about how you learn to play a new skill or sport. You might watch others play for a while, but you don’t truly understand what is involved until you pick up that racket, throw that ball or swing that leg over the saddle of the bike.

Doing is the best form of thinking.

Doing cements the lessons in our brain in a way that just watching can’t do. But even doing isn’t enough for really meaningful understanding to happen.

To go even deeper, we also need to pass on the knowledge of what we have been doing to others. The phrase See One, Do One, Teach One (SODOTO) is commonly used in teaching environments like medical school. This is a powerful way to connect the brain’s learning equipment to the behaviors that lead to understanding and behavior change. Teaching others forces you to understand the subject or skill well beyond just doing it yourself.

Good leadership certainly requires that you provide an example of what you want your team to see, but that’s not the same as helping them to craft the behaviors to be the best they can be. You being your best version of yourself is never the same as someone else being the best version of themselves.

Almost all leaders struggle with this challenge.

When you add too many layers of process, or over plan the work or include tools to do the thinking you cut out the opportunities to think, do, teach and ultimately learn.

I’m learning my lessons by doing more and creating more opportunities to teach. Sometimes I still learn the hard way.