Leading by example is a central premise of most popular leadership philosophies and formal theories. The idea is that leaders provide a role model for the critical behaviors they want to see from their followers. As popular as this idea is, you might be surprised to know that there is very little empirical evidence to support the efficacy of leading by example in field studies of actual employees and their leaders. Leading by example is often inferred, but it has rarely been directly measured and evaluated for it’s effect on behavior.
A recently published study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (full citation below) provides some much needed evidence-based support for leading by example. This study of 67 separate work groups involving 683 total employees in a large Israeli communication organization looked at how the leader’s organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) affected the citizenship behavior of the group. The idea is that group members would be more likely to believe going above and beyond the formal job description to help the organization or fellow employees (OCB) is a worthy thing to do if they see a leader they identify with doing the same.
The results showed that group members were likely to engage in OCB to the extent that they believed it was a worthy behavior, and their beliefs about the value of OCB were affected by both the leader’s actual OCB and their belief that the leader was a worthy role model. As a leader, you need your people to do more than what’s written in their formal job descriptions to help the organization and each other. This research suggests that to get this critical behavior from your employees, you need to exhibit it yourself. Your folks will not go above and beyond the call of duty at work unless they see you doing the same.
This research has implications for critical behaviors other than OCB. For any behavior you need to see from your followers, you are most likely to get it from them if they believe the behavior is worthy of their effort. This research suggests that one way to facilitate behavior you want to see from others is to practice it yourself, but that only works if they actually see you practice it and believe in your leadership. Leading by example won’t work if your folks either never see you, or when they do see you have little respect for you as a leader.
Once again, the evidence supports what most of us strongly believe – leading by example works. As a leader, you will be most effective if the things you ask your folks to do are things you are actually doing yourself.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Full citation: T. Yaffe and R. Kark. (2011). Leading by example: The case of leader OCB. Journal of Applied Psychology.