Leadership Spotlight

Setting the Example

Stock image of a professional businessman working in an office environment.

Books on leadership often discuss setting a positive example as the primary trait for leaders to develop. Employees look at everything leaders say and do, and we cannot hide from the scrutiny. To achieve success, we must remain cognizant of how our actions impact others.

Leading by example involves conscious decisions that reflect agency goals, morals, and ethics. In other words, leaders try to influence employees to behave and respond in ways valuable and appropriate for the organization. We empower our personnel to succeed and grow.


Have you encountered a leader who regularly asks personnel to work late, yet leaves on time, perhaps to play a round of golf? Obviously, this is not leading by example. Leaders should set the standard, staying and working alongside you, “getting their hands dirty.”

Setting a positive example encourages desired behaviors in your employees. For instance, if you want your team to look professional, you dress well. If you desire punctuality, you arrive on time. If you want honesty, you must be truthful—even when you are wrong. Such conscious decisions inspire others to emulate you.

Successfully leading by example involves such traits as decisiveness, solid judgment, tact, and integrity. When employees speak of their heroes or best leaders, they refer to those who reflect these characteristics. Even high-profile leaders have their faults, yet they lead by example and hold global respect. Their positive leadership, not their shortcomings, has defined them. From them, we can gain valuable insight.

  • President Ronald Reagan shared, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”1
  • Cofounder of Costco Jim Senegal warned, “Show, don’t tell.”2
  • Founder of CNN, Ted Turner, stated, “Set your goals so high that you can’t achieve them in one lifetime.”3


When you intently lead by example, no limit to organizational and team success exists. Every agency wants this result. Setting the example brings considerable rewards.

Many leaders never had ideal models to emulate. Therefore, when they recognize effective leadership in action and observe the results, their own approach likely will change. Leading by example is contagious both up and down the chain of command.

Law enforcement leaders constantly find themselves under scrutiny. Their decisions impact not only their employees but their family, community, profession, and legislature. Setting a positive example plays a key role in who they are, who they influence, and how people perceive them.

Are you that leader who arrives late, unshaven, and in a dirty uniform and acts inappropriately? Do you love being the center of attention and stepping on and over everyone else to “get there” first? Alternatively, are you the leader who makes competent decisions, empowers others, and never misbehaves?

Which leader has competent and loyal followers? Who do superiors confide in? Nothing impacts morale more than leaders who practice the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. We all have worked for such individuals and hopefully have become enlightened by watching their poor actions. If you have not learned, you should.

Ways to Lead by Example

  1. Take responsibility; blame suffocates growth.
  2. Use integrity; show that honesty is the best policy.
  3. Be courageous, walk into the fire, take that calculated risk, and make difficult decisions.
  4. Acknowledge failure; it is part of growth and shows others it is OK.
  5. Be persistent; try over and over; and power through it, over it, and under it.
  6. Create solutions; do not dwell on problems.
  7. Listen; listening is more powerful than talking, and it creates dialogue and understanding.
  8. Delegate liberally; this empowers people.
  9. Take care of yourself; exercise, take a break, model it, encourage it.
  10. Get dirty; lead from the front into the battle, and you will inspire greatness.

Source: Shari Yantes, “Top 10: Ways to Lead by Example,” Shari Yantes (blog), July 9, 2014, accessed January 19, 2018, http://shariyantes.com/lead-by-example/.


The decisions we make as leaders and the examples we set influence everyone around us. Employees pay attention to everything we do, including actions we may not want them to repeat. Leaders must know what they want emulated and remain constantly cognizant of their own behavior. They may become frustrated, angry, disappointed, or agitated―all of us are human. However, we do not want these reactions emulated. Therefore, we must strive constantly to prevent our emotions from turning into examples.

Well-known leadership books acknowledge the importance of setting the example as a necessary characteristic for effective leaders. Having individuals watching what you do as a leader directly translates to the influence you have on them. Further, it clearly defines why leading by example is the most sought after trait by those in leadership positions. You must have intent to gain the results you desire. At no time does the leader stop being one, even when out of the office or off duty. Leaders must consciously model the same behaviors they expect of the personnel in their agency.

Lieutenant Chris Hartley of the St. Helena, California, Police Department prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at chrisjn11@aol.com. 


1 “Ronald Reagan Remembered,” Tricia McDermott, 60 Minutes, aired June 6, 2004, on CBS, accessed January 9, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ronald-reagan-remembered/.
2 Mina Kimes, Best Advice I Ever Got, “Jim Sinegal: Show, Don’t Tell,” Fortune, July 8, 2009, accessed January 9, 2018, http://archive.fortune.com/galleries/2009/fortune/0906/gallery.best_advice_i_ever_got2.fortune/2.html.
3 Ted Turner, Twitter post, October 4, 2017 (6:20 a.m.), accessed January 9, 2018, https://twitter.com/TedTurnerIII/status/915567225364500482.