Subscribe to Inc. magazine

The Smart Way to Lead by Example

Entrepreneurs who lead by example often end up micromanaging instead. Here's how you can dive in without irritating your team.

Lead by example.

That sounds simple enough, right? Parents may think they can get away with telling their children, “Do as I say, not as I do,” but in business, that doesn’t work. Nothing kills productivity like a workforce that feels their leadership is “out of touch” with the day-to-day of what they do. This is common enough that we’ve now got a reality show, Undercover Boss, based on it.

The best way to show that you know what your team does is to work alongside them--to a certain extent-;clearly demonstrating your expectations. Your team will have more respect for you, and will be more productive. You may even learn a thing or two about your business operations along the way.  If you declare and demonstrate to your team that responding to customers is the top priority, for example, the team will have to re-prioritize their other work to meet that directive. Hopefully, that means they’ll work smarter by making better decisions.

You’re not going to get much credit for leading by example. Might as well get over that now. Instead, your team is likely to receive credit for changes that wouldn’t have happened without you.

There is a saying that goes, “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.” If you’re the originator of many successes, you know the truth of this maxim better than anyone. The majority of people within an organization will never understand the full role you’ve played or the contributions you’ve made.

The key is communicating your priorities to your board, so that the ‘important’ successes are appropriately attributed to you. As a former chief executive, I can tell you it is very impressive to see someone respond with grace and professionalism when others appropriate their accomplishments.

Leading by example involves responding quickly, acting decisively and communicating your rationale. When you work alongside your employees, you also have the opportunity to capture and demonstrate best practices. That’s nearly impossible to do without direct experience.

As a leader, you will eventually need to pull back and let your team do the work. But they can’t do that effectively until you show them what you expect, and how you expect it to be done.

Last updated: Aug 15, 2012

DON RAINEY | Columnist | General Partner, Grotech Ventures

Don Rainey is a General Partner with Grotech Ventures, which invests in early stage technology companies. He was named to the Washingtonian Magazine Tech Titans List and earned the Northern Virginia Technology Council?s Lifetime Navigator award for his support of entrepreneurs. Don blogs at VC in DC at

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

Register on today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments

Or sign up using: