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No Backseat Driving: How Leading by Example Sets the Pace for Success in Your Business Your values and actions connect, and people need to see both

By Brendan P. Keegan & Zak Brown Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • Leading by example fosters trust and unity through organizations and helps prepare the next generation of talent.
  • Every leader will miss the mark as they try to lead by example.
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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The greatest leaders are those who lead by example: Roger Penske, founder, chairman and CEO of Penske Automotive Group, has garnered an immense amount of respect by prioritizing regular visits to his dealerships and spending time with his mechanics, discussing how things are going over a cup of coffee.

Similarly, Ron Dennis, founder of the McLaren Technology Group, played an instrumental role in elevating McLaren's position as a formidable F1 contender. However, that achievement wouldn't have been possible without his active involvement in the minute details of the organization. Dennis was known for conducting a tour of the McLaren race cars before every race to ensure the design and details met every expectation.

Leading by example is just as critical in today's business environment as it was for Penske, Dennis and others who created lasting legacies. It fosters trust and unity through organizations and helps prepare the next generation of talented people to get into the driver's seat. If you want to accelerate your success, taking a hands-on approach and doing what you want others to do can get your pedal to the floor.

Your values are meant to go beyond you

To lead by example means being a values-driven leader — that is, you let what you believe in shape the actions you demonstrate in front of people. What's important to you as an individual? An organization? Both layers come into play and should line up with each other.

Why should you ensure others see, know and understand your values? Because eventually, someone else is going to have to take the wheel. Unless you instill your values in somebody else, there won't be anybody to keep driving the race you started.

Suppose one of your values is courage. You take reasonable risks yourself. But then, when someone tries something, and it's unsuccessful, you chew them out, demote them or dish out some other form of discipline. That sends the message that you don't really want others to be courageous and deters them from going out on a limb. Your value of courage won't spread through the business, and your potential legacy will be lost.

Related: If You Want to Be a Good Leader, Understand The Link Between Business Values and Leadership

Sometimes you drive, and sometimes you hand over the keys

In any strong organization, people learn from the leader, who sets the stage for innovation. But the leader also recognizes they're not always the smartest person in the room. They learn from their people, partners or other experts.

But you can't listen and talk at the same time. So part of leading by example is knowing when to drive and when to hand over the keys. Your instinct for discerning when you can entrust responsibility to someone else and when you need to step in and course correct will improve over time. Be prepared not to interfere, and trust the new drivers you coach to do what they've seen from you.

Instilling your values as part of this two-way interaction requires you to be relatable, approachable and authentic. Most people can't maintain the masks they try to wear, so just be yourself. Some leaders thrive off of communicating with their employees, so when they receive a kind email thanking them for something, they may choose to send a lengthy response in return. But if your leadership style doesn't include such an approach, that's also OK. It's more important to be consistent with your brand; even a short response note will be enough to let the employee know you see and appreciate their comments. Little gestures that are a genuine reflection of who you are will still add up.

Related: How To Show Humility as a Leader Without Apologizing for Your Success

You're human, and so are we all

Every leader occasionally misses the mark as they try to lead by example. One of the most common blunders is setting expectations that aren't supported by the organization's systems (like hiring and promotion), such as telling people you want them to innovate but never talking about innovation in performance reviews, thereby failing to measure and reward it. This approach might get you short-term gains, but you won't have long-term sustainable wins.

The hurdles don't stop there. Leaders can set the bar too high and not be empathetic enough to understand what others around them can really manage. They may fail to follow through on their word. Additionally, much of leading by example is preparation — the more thoughtful and well-briefed you are, and the more you know how you want to portray yourself, the easier it is to send a consistent message without getting thrown off track. But sometimes, ego or fear also prompts leaders to fake it when they don't know something or aren't prepared.

Fortunately, nobody expects you to be perfect. Emotional intelligence is a journey, and at the end of the day, we're all people. So cut yourself a little slack. When you make a mistake, your best bet is to own it and say, "I wasn't my best. I'm going to try to do better." People respect when someone comes clean about what went wrong and holds themselves accountable.

There's a real risk to not being willing to lead by example: If people see a gap between what you say you believe and what you do, your team won't trust you. If people can't trust you, they won't respect you. Respect is hard to win back once you lose it. And if you don't have it, good luck driving the organization through the finish line because people aren't going to respond to whatever calls to action you give.

Related: 4 Reasons Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Impact the Bottom Line

The only way you'll win is if you're out on the track

Leading by example leans on the basic idea that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If you don't model your values in what you do, people will assume they can do what you do — or rather, what you don't. So if you say one thing but aren't acting on it, don't be surprised if they don't act on it, either.

But by the same token, when you lead by example well, it's inspiring. People believe in themselves simply because you do. When that type of confidence creates synergy in an organization, nothing can stop you.

So take the chance. Make some mistakes, but get out in front. It's better than not being in the race at all.

Brendan P. Keegan serves as Chairman, CEO and President at Merchants Fleet and co-owner of United Autosports, while Zak Brown serves as the CEO of McLaren Racing and co-founder of United Autosports.

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