Leading by Example - An Interesting Approach to Lead

Albert Einstein once said “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”

To compliment this quote, let me tell you a story. Story begins 16 years back when I started working as shop supervisor in a mechanical workshop. Workshop had around 25 skilled technicians. Most of them were in age group of 30s to 50s. It was a challenging job for a 19 year old boy to manage these experienced and skilled workers. Hence I had various wonderful learnings during this job. Following is one of such interesting learning.

Very first day, when I entered in the workshop, I found it very unclean and untidy. There were some obvious reasons for being dirty. Like being a mechanical workshop, there was lot of scrap production daily. Lot of oil was being used for lubrication along with various coolants also. However, still there were good reasons to believe that it can be comparatively cleaner. I felt a need to change or improve. Being very new to the Organization, I decided to wait for sometime. Eventually I started discussing with team members about cleaning the place. One day I got a simply reply from few workers for not cleaning the workshop, that was, "Either we can clean the workshop or can complete our day job. You tell us what we need to do". Sound familiar :). Even today sometimes I heard similar reasoning that, "Either we can improve the code/process, or can make the delivery". I understood the problem and gave it some more time.

One morning, I thought that I should clean my place at least. My place comprised of one table, chair, cupboard, some documents and lot of dirt. I spent 3-4 hours and cleaned it completely. All the workers were looking at me quite surprisingly. At the end of the day, I was happy that I did what I liked and what I should have done. There was no expectation around. Next morning, 2-3 of the workers came to my seat and told me that they also wanted to clean their place. They asked, can I manage the time break for cleaning. I took the responsibility and told that I shall manage it. They called all other workers and discussed with them. That day, all the them worked as a team and cleaned the workshop for 4-5 hours. Results were obviously pleasant. Workshop was completely changed, air was purified. All of the co-workers were appreciating the change themselves. Earlier they had to find a clean place to have their tea, now whole workshop was cleaned enough to sit anywhere.

It was a great learning for me, that how a small example can inspire group of people to do good action, for good change. I took that learning with me.

Here are few 'take away points' from this story, which tells us the basic ingredients of 'Lead by Example' practice.

  • Show that it is feasible and doable
  • Share information in small chunks which others can understand quickly and can adapt easily
  • And one important point, don't forget those 2-3 workers which came to the table next day asking for permission to clean. Those were the change agent, which actually helped to propagate the change. Don't ignore the change agents, rather empower them. Show your trust in them. 

So all good so far. However, as a word of caution, please don't expect result of example so early always. Sometimes, you may not get the results for days or weeks even. There can be a phase of frustration when nothing is happening. Patience is required in such scenario. Let us take another example to understand this. Suppose I joined an Organization recently. Nobody knows about me much, no carry forward reputation. In meeting room, I found that most of the people are not putting the chairs back to their place after meeting. I started putting chairs back in their position, in expectation that others would follow. However, nothing happened. No one noticed. I was the only one doing that for next 2-3 weeks. Bad? Not entirely actually, and hopefully will never be. After sometime, at least few other team mates started doing that. I just had to have some patience. But still impact was slow and not widespread.

Now, lets change the scenario a little. Instead of me, it is the team manager who is putting the chairs back in place. What would happen? Most of the team will take the clue and will follow him. Why, because he already has a relation of trust, respect or authority with all team members. Hence, relation of trust or respect matters while setting the example. This respect or trust can come from any factor; like if you are experienced and hence have respect in team due to your skills, or you are having a good designation, or you are empowered by your seniors. It is an important point, or otherwise example would take time to show the impact.

Conclusion: 'Lead by example' is an awesome leadership practice which mostly works. Practice it wherever you can, just keep low expectations and have patience. It is equally applicable in your personal life too. And don't ignore the change agents, they are very important.

Let me conclude the article with a beautiful quote from Mahatma Gandhi - "Be the change, what you want to see in the world".

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