Setting the Example: The Price and the Payoff

In my last post, What is the Basis of All LeadershipI mentioned that there was a price we instructors at the Montana Military Academy had to pay in order to set the example we wanted our students to follow. There was also a big payoff – a reward. The question becomes “Is the payoff more valuable than the price?” In other words, is the effort of setting the example a good investment?

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The Price:

What did it cost us instructors to set an example that convinced a group of disheveled, unruly soldiers to change their ways and conform to the rules?

It took a lot of effort and two weeks time. We instructors set the example through our impeccable appearances, our speech (which revealed our attitudes), by demonstrating our professional knowledge of the subjects we taught, and last, but far from least, we demonstrated our understanding of and care for the underperforming soldiers under our care. How did we do it?

We worked on our personal time, after working hours, to starch and iron our uniforms, spit polish our boots, which was not required, study the lessons we were scheduled to teach the next day, and we discussed ideas for handling students who were unusually challenging. We did this in private in the instructors’ quarters. The students didn’t see the effort we put in, but they saw the results. They understood by the results of our appearance and professional expertise that we did much more than was required.

While this sounds like drudgery, it was really a joyful time for us instructors. It was a time of camaraderie which enabled us to become a close knit group, both professionally and personally. At times we had to cut our sleeping time to 3-5 hours. These were times of rewarding personal sacrifice for all of us.

Although I am relating this information by way of a military story, remember that civilian leadership is exactly the same. The same principles apply to leadership in business, family, church and clubs or informal groups. People will instinctively follow the person who sets the example of knowing what needs to be done, has a solid plan for doing it and who communicates via attitude and body language that he or she can encourage and lead the group to success in whatever endeavor is being considered.

Communication of your skills via attitude, demonstrated aptitude and confidence will inspire people to want to follow you. Words are cheap and should be used sparingly.

The Payoff:

Although, through each pay period, we instructors received the same pay as we would have for just doing an average job in another field, we were rewarded with compensation much more valuable than money.

Every new day during the course, when we came together with our students, we were rewarded  with a boost to our individual confidence, as we saw the progress our students were making. You see, we knew what we were doing because we had studied and had been taught by more accomplished leaders than ourselves.

We knew when our student’s appearance improved that it was because of the example we set. This increased our confidence motivated us to continue the boring task of spit shining our combat boots in the evenings because we wanted the satisfaction of seeing our students perform even better the next day.

Our evenings of studying and discussing the subjects we taught (subjects we already understood) increased our confidence in our ability to teach. The satisfaction from the improvement our students experienced and demonstrated in the classroom and during field training was indescribable!

The most valuable part of the payoff for us was when the students started holding their heads high, signifying their increased confidence that they gained through the knowledge and discipline we taught them.

To have made a life changing, career changing improvement in their lives was a privilege that few people ever experience.

For us instructors, it was a very deep emotional experience that ended with tears welling in our eyes, after the students’ graduation and we had to say “good-bye” to them, as they scattered across the state to return to their home units, to be strong leaders. These soldiers had become our team, albeit only for a short time. It was like a family separation.

The payoff continued for years. At various events, such as our two week summer training with our units, we would occasionally meet one or two of our former students. They would be using the skills we taught them with the confidence we inspired in them. They would seek us out to visit with us and thank us again. Often their rank would indicate that they had been promoted to a higher pay grade.

A lesser payoff for all the effort and heart we put into our jobs came when we received our evaluation reports, which became a permanent part of our service records. We were rewarded with kind words from our superiors, which are strongly considered for a soldier’s career advancement (increased responsibility) and promotion.

Since I haven’t clearly stated this fact, please be aware that our ability to be accurate in the effort we put in to transforming our students was also partly the result of self evaluation and mutual critique. Critique is constructive criticism. In order to make yourself better, you must understand and correct your deficiencies. We all have them.

Don’t let your special knowledge, ability and your unique method of presentation go to waste. Share it with the rest of us. Yes, I am an instructor, but I also learn from my students.

You have abilities that are unique to you, and valuable to the world, so please make your contribution, or ask your question in the comments. If you have a matter of private concern that I can help you with, send it to me via the contact form below. I am here to serve you; to help you become a better leader.

You have greatness in you. Don’t deprive the world of your special abilities.





What is the Basis of All Leadership?

cropped bow-tie-fashion-man-person

A widespread leadership problem is that leaders tend to see the the problem as the problem. The truth is that the problem is seldom the problem. The problem is like a fever; it is a symptom of a problem. Just as a fever is a signal that something is wrong in your body, a problem with your team’s production can usually be traced to a problem with leadership. I know that hurts, but what we are looking for is truthful answers that will solve problems. Answers that really work; that enable accomplishment.

Perhaps, by the standards that you have set for yourself, you think that you’re doing a great job of leading. Perhaps you’ve made the common innocent mistake of setting standards that are good, but area little off target. Probably, your methods, or specific policies don’t resonate with your people. There is the problem, my friend. You have every good motive, you treat your people pretty well, you don’t ask too much and they are decently paid. Even so, if your ways don’t resonate with your people you will probably get mediocre results. How can you fix this seemingly complex situation?

The answer is simple, although I can’t categorically say it is easy. Remember that people do not value things that come cheaply or easily, and you are probably not an exception to that rule. Very few are.

Before I give the answer, let’s think for a moment about what you, as a leader are trying to accomplish. Isn’t it that you are trying to influence your followers to cooperate with you? That’s leadership in a nutshell.

The Answer Is:

Example. Your example. You must model the attitude and behavior that you want from your people, and you must do it well. Let me give you an example (pun intended).

Albert Zweitzer, a famous influencer of people who lived from 1875-Sweitzer1965 said:

Example is not the main thing in influence, it is the only thing.

That is what Sweitzer said. Now the question becomes “What did he do?” He made a lot of money through plenty of hard work. He won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his book Reverence for All Life. He then went on to found a hospital, with his own money, in Lambaréné in Gabon (Central Africa). The hospital was a massive endeavor, sufficient to care for 500 patients at one time. Not only did he found the hospital, but he served as a doctor and surgeon, groundskeeper, guide for visitors and numerous other roles in the administration of the hospital.

Do you see the example this prominent man set? Not only was he a renowned musician, author, medical doctor and philosopher; he was also a leader of people. As groundskeeper for his hospital, he demonstrated that he was not just a boss who lived in the safety of an ivory tower. He presented himself as a fellow human being, living in common with all other humans and life forms on the earth. Pretty strong example, huh?

You and I may not set the extreme example of Albert Sweitzer, but we must set the example that we want others to follow; in our homes, in our businesses, on our jobs, in social settings. Anytime we want to influence others to cooperate with us, we must set the example.

When I was a leadership instructor at the Montana Military Academy, it was typical for our fellow non-commissioned officers and students for the next two weeks to arrive looking and acting more like 1960’s hippies than soldiers. Now, to look like a hippie when you ARE a hippie is fine, but it just doesn’t work for the good of military. This needed to be corrected.

This is a long story that I need to make short: The other instructors and I solved the problem, not by barking orders and growling at these soldiers. We simply conducted a personnel inspection and clearly explained to each man what he needed to correct in order to receive the rewards he wanted; social acceptance and graduation from the course. But, before the inspection, we modeled the appearance we wanted.

At the end of the course, many of the students were as sharp as we instructors. They wrote anonymous  critiques of the course. Overall their critiques stated clearly that they were impressed with our appearances when they arrived, some said they were shocked and scared that they couldn’t be successful. Almost every one of them said that the example of the instructors motivated them to take this course seriously, and to meet the standard demonstrated by the instructors. One of our classes was so fully transformed that we instructors pooled some of our money and hired a team of Scottish bag-pipers to play and lead their graduation parade at the awards ceremony. It was a very rewarding and touching moment.

How did we set that example and what was the cost to us? That’s a story for another post. I’ve taken up enough of your time and given you enough to work on for now.

In general summary, leaders are the first ones to sacrifice themselves for the accomplishment of the mission or task. Leaders are the folks who use their energy to “prime the pump” to get the team out of its collective comfort zone and on task. This is why good leaders are the first ones to arrive, usually the last to leave, the last to partake of the reward; however, unbeknownst to his or her followers, the leader is actually the first to partake of the reward of the satisfaction of the successful accomplishment of the team. The leader receives that reward of satisfaction, then has the privilege of “officially” announcing the success of the win to the team.

Then, when the success is announced, the team members are happy and say “We did all ourselves.” The leader smiles, then uses the momentum of that success to help them “do it all themselves” on the next project.

I cannot say that I agree with Sweitzer on every point, but on the point  of setting the example you want others to follow, I definitely agree with him. For leaders, his is an example worth following.

Have you got a story to share about either setting or following an example that produced either good or bad results?

Do you have something to add that I may have overlooked, or didn’t have space to include?

How about a question about your leadership challenges?

Please use the comments section freely; don’t deprive the world of the good scoop you have to offer.

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