As he stood at the lectern after taking the guidon, the new commander spoke eloquently to the assembled troops. He said all the right things: trust was essential, success was the standard, and readiness was non-negotiable. They were the kinds of words that were boilerplate for such events; the phrasing might change but the formula is basically universal. As he finished up his comments, he remarked that he was a family man, that work-life balance mattered, and that he expected us all out of the office and headed home by 5:00 p.m. He was going to lead by example.

Within a week of assuming command, he could be found watching out his office window to see if any of his subordinate leaders were moving in the direction of the parking lot. When he saw someone, he sent a soldier after them, armed with instructions to return to their office and call him. “No one should leave before me.” In his mind, he was leading by example. That example often came after 7:00 p.m., and sometimes much later. It sent a message that transmitted loud and clear; he measured performance by the length of time people spent at work. He set the example, all right, just not the one he thought.


Like it or not, if you are in a position of authority, you are always leading by example. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Michael Schrage – a research fellow at MIT’s Sloan School of Management – asked leaders to describe how they set the example in their respective roles. For many, they hadn’t considered that basic question. But as they reflected on their experience, they came to realize that setting the example was as fundamental to leading as a morning cup of coffee.

Schrage’s exercise was also important because it allowed leaders to see themselves through the eyes of those they were leading. Where they had presupposed that their examples were always positive, in reflection, they could see how those actions might be perceived by others. Empathy and introspection proved to be powerful tools for understanding the impact of the examples they set.

“Serious leaders understand that, both by design and default, they’re always leading by example,” Schrage noted. “Everyone senses their success – and failure – at leading by example is integral to their leadership brand. Smart leaders want to build their brands.” Even when we’re setting the wrong example, we’re still leading by example. A strong leader should possess the character and humility to look inward and reflect on the example they’re setting.

In the case of the commander described earlier, he routinely worked late into the night, typically catching up on tasks he neglected during daylight hours. In his eyes, he was teaching people the value of a strong work ethic; to others, he was punishing them for his own lack of organizational skills. He was setting the example, but he lacked the empathy to see that example for what it was. A bad one.


“Do as I say, not as I do,” is a classic leadership cliché for setting the wrong example as a leader. It’s a morale killer. We’ve all got personal anecdotes that detail the experience, too. The boss who rails over budget expenditures while spending frivolously. The commander that espouses family values while carrying on an extramarital affair with a subordinate. The zero-defect leader who routinely lies on readiness reports to avoid the consequences of his own failures. These examples drive cynicism through the organization, leaving a wake of poor morale and worse performance.

Leaders are typically the exemplars of an organization. Others will naturally follow their example. When those examples are aligned with the mission and values of the organization, the results tend to be positive. Set the wrong example, however, and leaders ultimately redefine the standards of the organization, often inviting disaster in the process.

10 Ways You’re Doing it Wrong

What does wrong look like? It’s really not that complicated.

1. Breaking the rules.

Standards have to apply to everyone, or they mean nothing. If there’s a standard for everyone else and a standard for you, then you’ve set the organization on a destructive course.

2. Compromising your values.

Values are the glue that binds an organization. Ignore those values and the organization will begin to disintegrate.

3. Fostering an unhealthy work-life balance.

Having a strong work ethic is competitive advantage. Working people until they break – or confusing productivity for time spent in the office – negates that advantage.

4. Micromanaging the life out of people.

Micromanagement comes in many forms, but its destructive impact is pretty much universal. Instead of telling people how to do everything, tell them what you want done and let them surprise you with their initiative and creativity.

5. Being volatile.

Leaders who routinely exhibit emotional instability or inconsistency undercut the psychological safety net that underpins strong teams. Be the calm in the storm. Choose consistency over chaos.

6. Hoarding information.

There’s a fine line between confidentiality and transparency. Secretive leaders breed distrust and suspicion. People understand that some information has to remain confidential; don’t starve them for information in a quest for secrecy.

7. Demanding perfection.

People make mistakes. Underwrite them. If you demand perfection, the organizational culture will become increasingly risk averse and the outcomes you want will be harder to attain.

8. Focusing only on results.

In the same vein, an over focus on results will ultimately drive people to sidestep values and standards. As a leader, you want people to achieve positive results, but in a way that’s consistent with the organizational norms.

9. Not listening.

Few things are as frustrating as a leader who is closed off to input and feedback. Such leaders eventually find themselves in need of key information they don’t receive because of their own bad habits.

10. Pushing negativity.

An “us versus them” mentality. Consistently negative language. All of these permeate organizational culture to the point that they poison the perpetual optimism that drives winning teams.

it’s a Good time to look in the mirror

Most leaders don’t consciously intend to set the wrong example. They mean well enough, but lack the empathy and introspection to see how the examples they set might push their teams in an unintended direction. If you’re not getting the results you want, it might be a good time to look in the mirror. Are you the leader you think you are? Are you leading by the right example? The answers might surprise you.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.