Why What You Say As A Leader Does Not Matter

It was 10:15 p.m. when I finished my first day of work in Japan. I transferred to Tokyo to head human resources for the company I was working for. I worked late to get up to speed. When I opened my office door I noticed most of my team still at their desks.

“What are you all still doing here?” I asked. They were waiting for me to leave in case I needed anything.

In traditional Japanese culture, team members will not leave the office before their boss. I explained I was only concerned with their output and results, not the hours they spent at work. Also, I told them if they completed work for the day, they could leave at anytime. Despite my direction, they continued to stay in the office until I left each day after.

I knew if I wanted to encourage my team to leave the office earlier, I needed to take a different approach. I needed to change my behavior first. I started leaving my office around 5 p.m. then working remotely when needed in the evening. I also avoided sending emails to my team after office hours.

My team now felt empowered to leave the office to pursue personal interests, spend time with family and friends and generally to enjoy more of their lives outside of work. I also noted improved efficiencies in their work. They were getting more done in less time.

It was a huge win for everyone and changed the work culture for the better.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

As most people know, “Do as I say, not as I do” simply does not work around children. For this reason, I always insist on obeying pedestrian street crossing rules when I am with my young daughters. I want them to learn safe behavior for when they negotiate a road on their own.

Like children, employees will quickly adopt their leader’s behavior when it serves them best. If you tell someone you will do something, then don’t do it, people will feel it is okay to do the same to you when the time comes. If you speak poorly about others, are dishonest, or disrespect those around you, your employees will behave the same way.

For example, if you want meetings to start on time, always begin them on time. If you consistently start meetings late, your team will learn being late is not a problem. Your culture will lack punctuality, despite what you say.

The way you behave – not what you say – will dictate the behavior of those around you and your organizational culture.

Ain’t No Level High Enough

Cultures are a clear product of core leadership actions. The CEO that believes his or her behavior is too far removed to affect front line employees is deceiving themself. In fact, the most powerful form of reinforcement comes directly from the top – for good and bad. Lower level employees view the behavior as accepted or even expected.

If senior leaders constantly micromanage, that management style will cascade through your organization. This is not due to a copycat behavior, but the belief that such behavior is required to survive or be successful in your organization. Such a pervasive culture stifles creativity, employee development and organizational progress.

To the contrary, leaders who actively empower others will create strong cultures which stimulate innovation and growth. Leaders who show interest in their people and recognize good work, kindle highly engaging, caring cultures.

Modeling the wrong behavior at the top of your organization can have even more dire consequences. When senior leaders disregard company policies or openly break stated rules, then lower level employees will feel permitted to do the same. Such behavior leads to cultural rot, potentially ethical and legal lapses, and in certain environments, safety issues.

Your words may be heard, but your actions as a leader are watched, judged, critiqued and emulated. The culture you model at the top of your institution will be the culture of your entire organization. Define your organizational values. Make sure you and your senior leaders are consistently living them.

What’s Trust Got To Do With It?

In Brent Gleeson’s Inc. article “7 Simple Ways to Lead by Example,” he states,

Navy SEALs are trained to be leaders, regardless of age or rank. To put it another way, they are trained to earn trust. As I learned with the SEALs, and relearn continually in business, people truly follow only those they trust.

I was lucky enough to work with several former Navy SEALs in my career. They reliably ranked among the top leaders in each organization. Leadership by example is core to their belief system. The Navy SEAL Creed states, “I serve with honor on and off the battlefield…I lead by example in all situations.”

Trust is the foundation of all healthy relationships whether personal or business. If you are not trusted, you become an ineffective leader. If you don’t walk the talk, you will fail to drive and influence change.

Lack Of Action Matters

Just as your active behavior affects the way your team behaves, so does your lack of action.

In my career, I have worked with both high and low performing teams. I have found most underperforming teams were a result of managers ignoring or avoiding poor performance on their team. As time passed, higher performers observed, the actions of underperformers went unchecked. Sadly, the performance bar of the team dropped for even the very best team members.

Your team’s behavior and the creation of a high performing culture are defined by what you react to and what you don’t. If you promote excellence, but don’t respond to low performance, it will linger. If you speak about integrity and care for others, then let dishonest or disrespectful behavior go unmanaged, that sort of conduct will multiply in your organization like a cancer.

Consider the meeting example above. Even if you start all your meetings on time, but consistently let one member of the team show up late, others will follow suit. Your inaction condones the behavior and encourages others to behave the same way.

Avoiding “the bad apple” syndrome is key. One leader allowed to operate in a manner counter to the culture you are trying to create will destroy all other efforts. You must hold all team members to the values your organization embraces, even if they are delivering current business results. Not doing so will trade short-term results for long-term suitability, and your ability to retain and attract the best talent.

Values That Matter

In the Dalai Lama’s Instructions For Life, he speaks about the need to follow the three R’s:

  1. Respect for self.
  1. Respect for others.
  1. Responsibility for all your actions.

Core values which subscribe to these tenets and are modeled by leaders will create a healthy and productive culture in your organization.

  1. By respecting yourself, you will be true to who you are in all interactions. This fosters genuine and trusting relationships across your organization.
  1. By respecting others, they will most likely respect you and feel compelled to also lead with respect in your organization.
  1. By taking responsibility for all your actions, living and dying by your decisions and the results they yield, you breed accountability and trust in your organization.

Foundational values built around the three R’s will ensure you lead using the right example in your organization to deliver the results you desire.

What you do and react to as a leader matters most, not the words you speak or write. If your leaders are not displaying the types of behaviors which support your organizational values and culture, you need to ask them to change or leave your organization.

What leadership challenges do you face? Share them in the comment section below.

For more information about me and my new book How to Find a Job, Career and Life You Love (Second Edition) and companion recording, Surrender to Your Purpose go to LouisEfron.comAmazon.com and iTunes.


Published on Forbes, 26th May 2015

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