“Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” — U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.
As a leader, you’re also a teacher: both in the leadership-by-example sense and in the instructive sense. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” Employees learn partly by watching you and partly by receiving instruction. Unless you’re a spymaster or a military commander, never ask anyone to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. For example:
1. Arrive early and stay late. Ever had a boss who rolls in at 10, then heads out at 5 after telling everyone to stay late to hit the big deadline? How’d that work out for you? Isn’t that double standard inspiring? Don’t ask someone to work long hours if you refuse to. But on the opposite end of the scale, don’t expect people to work as long as you do if you regularly stay late, unless there’s a valid reason for it.
2. Pitch in during the emergencies. You can’t dissociate yourself completely from everyday tasks. You’ll face times when you’ll need to lend a hand to prevent the team from being overwhelmed. Not only is it the right thing to do—it maximizes team productivity. So rather than hang back when your people are floundering, step in and help. When an unexpected challenge emerges, rise to it. Take charge and put your back into your work until everyone’s safe or you meet the deadline, whatever the case may be. Don’t hesitate to get your hands dirty. But don’t make a habit of it—save it only for crunch-time and emergencies.
3. Don’t play favorites. You’ll inevitably like some employees more than others, but you can’t let that sway you. Dole out discipline and rewards when people deserve them, whoever they may be. Just because you want your protégé to get a promotion doesn’t necessarily make her the best candidate.
4. Practice the Golden Rule. Treat others with respect and dignity, the way you’d like to be treated. The boss who builds buy-in through polite direction engages the workforce much more effectively than one who yells and belittles people.
The Right Place to Stand
In addition to being in charge, your role as boss is to set the gold standard and remain above reproach. Walk the talk and practice what you preach—not just most of the time, but every time. Otherwise, why should anyone listen to a thing you say? While leaders remain fallible human beings, it isn’t that hard to achieve a decent balance. Still, some leaders do lose track, as the fiascos at companies like Enron, Arthur Andersen, and AIG have taught us.
Do the opposite of what the bad-apple leaders there did, keep a good head on your shoulders, and be willing to roll up your sleeves.