Leading by example

  • Published
  • By Col. Matthew Flood
  • 52nd Munitions Maintenance Group commander
Everyone has heard the leadership adage, "you need to lead by example." Leading by example, however, is not strictly the domain of those in traditional leadership roles.

All Airmen can lead by example, not only to their subordinates and peers, but also to those higher in rank. In fact, leading by example is not a choice. Everyone leads by example, even when they wish sometimes they didn't. It's not a question of whether or not you will influence people by your actions, but rather what kind of influence you will have.

Maybe you're a young Airman and think you are next to invisible with no influence over anyone's actions. I say you're mistaken, and I present a small example. Occasionally, I am outside when the music for retreat starts to play over the loudspeakers on base. The reactions of the various people during this event are quite a study in human nature.

The majority of people will stop in their tracks and render proper respect for the occasion. There are always a few who rush for the nearest door so they won't be inconvenienced by having to stand at attention for the two minutes it takes to play the German and the U.S. anthems. Others make sure they don't leave their facility if the time is approaching 5 p.m. for fear of being "caught" outside.

On one occasion, I was approaching the Base Exchange when the music for retreat started. As I was standing there, I noticed a few people turn around and go back into the BX, joining a number of others standing in the foyer waiting for retreat to conclude. Just after the national anthem started, an airman first class stepped out of the door a few paces, came to attention and saluted. A moment later, two Airmen stepped out and joined the Airman, and before the music concluded, there were five or six Airmen who had made their way out of the BX paying proper respect to our flag and nation. This Airman didn't think twice about stepping out and doing the right thing ... setting the right example, not for just his peers, but for everyone within eyesight of his actions. It was an insignificant event in the scheme of things, but it's one I will never forget.

What happens when you don't set the right example? One of the most common and most damaging manifestations of not setting the right example is the person that commits the, "do as I say, not as I do" method of leadership. One of the quickest ways to lose your credibility and destroy the morale of your team is not to practice what you preach.

Many times it starts innocently enough. Your supervisor requires you to participate in organized physical training twice a week. He feels good about himself for promoting the Air Force PT program and helping you to meet your requirement to pass the PT test. But more times than not, he doesn't attend the PT sessions. He has worked piled up on his desk he has to complete. Besides, he is conscientious enough to complete his PT after duty hours. What message is he sending his subordinates; his work is more important than theirs is? The rules regarding his mandatory PT attendance don't apply to him?

There are many variations on this theme of individuals exhibiting behaviors they wouldn't appreciate or respect in their leaders: having different standards for different people, yelling at or demeaning subordinates, leadership through intimidation, micro managing, being inaccessible, poor listener, negative attitude ... the list is endless. All of these characteristics are counter-productive if not out-right destructive to the unit.

People pay much more attention to what you do than to what you say. Leadership is in action and not in words. To become a better leader and, just as importantly, to develop quality future leaders, model the types of behavior you want to see in your leaders - characteristics and attributes worthy of emulation. In the end, we all lead by example; whether we want to or not.