Chapter 3: Set The Example

You cannot lead people from behind your desk. When you do come out from behind the desk, there are several reasons you are doing so; to role-model proper behavior, to inspire and influence others, to be visible, and to enable direct communication. In Peters and Waterman’s classic book, In Search of Excellence, this behavior is “management by walking around.” The Marines have been doing it since 1775. Setting the example is one of the most often mentioned elements of good leadership.

A commonly offered definition of leadership from people is the theme of “accomplishing results through people doing things they may not normally want to do of their own accord.” Setting the example is perhaps the most basic way that leaders get these results. Skeptics will argue that all a leader in the military has to do is issue an order and the job will get done. Perhaps that is true, but will the job get done in the appropriate time and to the appropriate standard? The Uniform Code of Military Justice is the code of law that all American service members choose to live by. Contrary to popular belief, the military doesn’t “just court martial them” if they don’t do the work. Cases of direct insubordination are rare and are usually handled at some level below the court martial. Marines do what they are told because they are Marines and they believe in the mission and they believe in their leadership. They know they cannot be fired if they don’t do those things, but they still do them. Unlike most civilians who can be fired, it is tough to fire a Marine.

Employees do what they are told because they understand that to stay employed they must do those things, and they might be fired if they don’t do those things. However, real leaders want their people to perform, not conform. The goal is to get high performance from people because they want to give it; not to extract compliance and conformance from people because the rules mandate their work.

Setting the example is one of the primary ways leaders begin to establish credibility and rapport with those they lead.

Physical fitness is perhaps the most obvious way a leader in the military sets the example. This is about more than success in combat. Health and wellness are integral parts of success in most endeavors. The strains of leadership are exacerbated in the unfit person. These magnified strains make it more difficult for the leader to think and act at the highest levels of effectiveness. The desire of the leader to remain fit, despite the time demands of most jobs, sends a positive message about balance and prioritization. For businesses to remain competitive, they need all employees operating at maximum capacity, efficiency, and effectiveness. In fact, best-of-class companies, like SAS, are known for their proactive approach to this area. Physical fitness is becoming a competitive advantage as health care costs escalate.

The business reader is correct in thinking that the physical fitness example is less applicable in the civilian sector. However, there are countless ways, positively and negatively, in which you set the example everyday. Let’s look at some other examples that are more easily accomplished. Your appearance, the way you dress, your bearing, carriage and demeanor, for example. You set the example through your conduct, the way you treat other people, and the attitude you bring to work every day. Do you follow procedures? Simply being enthusiastic and having passion for what you do go a long way. Conversely, your negativity can suck the life out of your work group.

These are just a few ways you can set the example every day. Remember this; you set an example with everything you do. Be very conscious of this and make sure you are sending the proper message to your people. Your actions, your personal example, speak for more loudly than your words and your people are always listening.

Wally Adamchik is the President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. You can visit him on the web at or email him at

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