While words and promises can be compelling, the true measure of a person is not what is said but rather what is done. Following a leader’s actions is much easier than believing promises – especially if what is said changes like the winds (or the weather here in Michigan). Though a zebra may think itself a horse it cannot lose its stripes. A child’s storybook once portrayed a porcupine that thought himself to be “fluffy” rather than “prickly” but his actions spoke louder than his words. We have often been told that “if we can dream it, we can do it” but unless (and until) we take intentional action to move from where we are to where we wish to be, nothing changes from what it is to what it could become. In order to lead effectively we must let go of the misconception that people will listen to what we say (and ask) without regard to what we do (or expect to be done) to accomplish what we want (without appropriate explanation) as we seek different results (without leading by example).
How can we expect our employees to adhere to an “eight to five” schedule if our day frequently begins at eight fifteen or ends at four thirty – with errands extending lunch and personal phone calls, internet inquiries or text messaging disrupting us from fulfilling our responsibilities? (Forget about the fact that you might have been doing company business the previous night, or that lunch was really an important business meeting or that breaks are not part of the daily routine…people SEE you coming in late or leaving early, your actions screaming far more loudly than the undertones of reality.) Parents tell their children to obey the rules (as they break the speed limit driving them somewhere), to respect their teachers (as they complain about the “boss that does not know anything”), and to take time to enjoy life (when they are “too busy doing their own thing” to play catch in the yard). Many sales organizations make unrealistic promises to customers (in order to “close the sale”) that must be kept by employees working long hours (evenings, weekends and Holidays) while the people making the promise spend time with their family. While this “customer service” reality may be hard to avoid, repeated abuse of the time of others while no apparent “self-sacrifice” is perceived by those putting in the time will minimize the credibility of the “abuser” and create hard feelings within an organization.
As humans, we are not perfect. We must learn to lead effectively by acting in a consistent and predictable manner (NOT necessarily doing the same thing in the same way all the time but rather by thinking in a logical manner that recognizes and considers the factors influencing success before acting in a way that those being led can understand). If we wish to be who we truly are rather than presenting ourselves as what we wish we could be, it would be wise to remember:
1) Words are but whispers when compared to the shouts of our actions. People more often believe what they see than what they hear. Those around you establish their perception of you by what you do – by how you act – not by the things you say, ask or request. We may try to reinvent ourselves with words, polish and packaging but we are truly only what our actions establish us to be in the eyes of others. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many volumes would a day’s worth of our actions (be they good or bad, consistent or random) write upon the pages of the lives of those we interact with on a regular basis?
2) Look for the good in others, publicly praising their positive actions and interactions to raise their attitudes and abilities while privately addressing their shortcomings by helping them to learn from their mistakes. People usually see what others do wrong – rarely recognizing or acknowledging what they do right. Parents rarely say to their children, “You are really being a good shopper today!” Rather it is, “don’t touch,” “wait until we get home,” or “I’m never going to bring you shopping again!” Though we need to address and constructively correct negative behavior, we should make an effort to acknowledge and verbalize appreciation for things done well. Far too many Managers feel that good performance is an expectation needing no acknowledgement (we pay people to do their job) while poor work must be immediately addressed and corrected (far too often in an excessive or potentially abusive manner).
3) It is better to compromise than to criticize – to live in the house you have built through your actions than in the rubble of another’s house you destroyed with your words. Criticism is destructive. Competent leaders do not tear others down to make themselves look better, they build others up to make ALL improve. One cannot lead by pushing from the bottom – leadership leverages the abilities of all to move the group into a singular direction that benefits the whole – to raise the abilities of all so that the team can achieve an ever-increasing level of competence – pulling others along with them as they rise to the top.
4) Look inwardly when assigning blame. People often defend their inappropriate actions by shifting blame to others. Rarely does an individual come out and say, “It was my fault.” Far more often it is, “Sam over there did something much worse than I would ever do. Address him before you talk to me.” When we measure ourselves against the actions of others, we will never truly see value in what we may have done (nor the full impact that our mistakes may have) – we see only the relative value of how our actions compare to another’s (concluding that “better than another” is “good enough” rather than striving for the best). Far too many politicians blame all failures on their predecessors while claiming all success as being their own – or (as is currently being done) deflect and defer rather than speaking boldly and acting with confidence.
5) Judge yourself using the same standards you apply to others. The greatest leaders of our times would never ask others to do what they would not do themselves. Truly great generals lead their troops into battle rather than following them from behind. Parents must “walk the talk” for their children. Managers cannot expect full productivity without giving it themselves. Anyone in a meaningful and sustainable relationship must share equally and contribute proportionately to a mutually beneficial outcome (rather than expecting another to be you or do things exactly as you would do them).
Effective leaders seek truth rather than distributing consequences. They focus more on what they are doing than on what others may not be doing – leading by example rather than by edict. In order to lead effectively we must recognize that nothing we say will overcome the things others see us do – that our actions are the clanging symbols of a band while our words are the whispering flutes. Were we to live each day as if we lived in a glass house having no shades or blinds to mask our actions, would our words reinforce our reality or would our reality overcome our words? Only when we can accept the results that come from others doing what they see us do rather than performing as we tell them to act will we fulfill our leadership potential.