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?

Woman giving guidance

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.