Do as I Do… How Important is Leading-by-Example on Leader Impact?

Let’s begin with a famous story about Walmart founder, Sam Walton, leading by example.  As we all know, a key part of the Walmart strategy was and is to grow their business by winning on price.  The story goes that, when Walton went on business trips, he didn’t fly business or first class – he flew coach. Remarkable in and of itself, Sam Walton flew the low-cost option. But there’s more.  When traveling overnight, Walton chose to share low-price hotel rooms with colleagues. His behavior reflected the “Do as I do” principle: strategy conveyed and reinforced by leader behavior.

This example emphasizes some evidence that indicates people watch what leaders do, and these observations have as much as twice the impact on people as anything a leader says (recognizing what leaders say is also important).  In research we conducted with 1,200 leaders, we found evidence for the powerful role leading by example plays in high performance leadership.

As Walton’s example illustrates, leaders lead by example.  They model the change they would like others to adopt. He also shows that high performance leaders model the accountability they expect from others.  The bottom line is, leadership impact resides in what I do. So, the high performance leadership principle is: “Please do what I ask but pay close attention to what I do.”

Effective leaders also create a context that drives high performance in others. This is our second point. Effective leaders build culture in two ways:

  1. A Culture of Leadership Excellence.  High performance work environments, ones that consistently achieve their goals over time, are distinguished by the high frequency practice of a cluster of leadership behaviors. High performance leaders create culture of excellence among the leaders they lead.  We have mentioned the power of “leading by example.”  Other behaviors also include a commitment to developing people to advance, building commitment to plans by leveraging the contributions of others, and so on.


  1. A Culture of Customer-Focused Innovation. Effective leaders define and refine a set of expectations about how people work together to achieve innovation that matters to customers. This means that, unlike their under-performing colleagues, high performing leaders begin their quest for innovation with the customer and not with innovation itself.

With the spirit of achievement-based candor, they focus people and teams on learning directly from customers about how well their needs are being addressed and through a close review of organizational practices that are limiting a team’s ability to exceed customer expectations. In so doing, high performance leaders break through the “emperor has no clothes” constraints that often block genuine attempts at customer innovation. They convert these insights into goals and plans for making a bigger difference to customers at the variety of touch points their organizations have with customers – sales, service, finance, etc.

By building a culture of high performance leadership, leaders are more than additive…they are multipliers.  They lead by example and get others to join in the quest of building a culture of leadership that transcends.

Tom Rose, Ph.D., is the author of “Managing at the Leading Edge,” which will be published by McGraw Hill in 2017.

Leave a Comment