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Comment: What type of leader are you?

It’s surprising how many managers adopt the “do as I say, not as I do” approach when asking employees to do a task.

Often these “leaders” would never dream of doing such a task themselves. Nor have they experience of doing so.

As someone who prefers to lead by example, I prefer to at least have some experience of what a task involves before asking somebody to do it for me.  But this is not always possible.  There are many things that I ask subordinates to do that I cannot do, such as writing code for new software. In such situations I hope I always ask the individual if what I am asking for is practical or even possible, and talk through the outcome I want while hopefully empowering them to do their job.

Carry on Chief
This harps back to my first few days and months in the Royal Navy (RN). They strongly believe in the RN that all officers must be able to do all the roles of a non-commissioned rating “subordinate”, and to do such roles to a particular level of competence. So we had not only to learn how the engines worked and how the steering works, but how to steer, and even the correct way to clean everything (yes, everything) on board a RN ship. I also learned, on my first day, probably a naval officer’s most important expression, “carry on Chief”.

In the modern business environment, we cannot, and should not, expect instant obedience in the same way one may expect in the armed forces. Nor should one expect the contrary, where every instruction or request is questioned. Nonetheless, I do recommend all staff to ensure they both understand accurately what they are being asked to do and why they are being asked to do it. Thus constructive dialog, or questioning, is not only welcome, it’s essential.

Sign of a good leader
“Do as I do”, is not only one of the best training tools it’s the sign of a good leader. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a call to always lead from the front, (just ask George Armstrong Custer). I believe if your team know that you won’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, they are more likely to work effectively, with good grace. And yes, sometimes this does mean leading from the front, and others following, but only when appropriate.

Another phrase I remember from my RN days was a rating saying of a somewhat officious officer: “I’d follow that man anywhere, just to see which cliff he’ll fall down first.” Not exactly a leadership style I’d recommend.

It is true, however, that sometimes the circumstances dictate that you do need instant, unquestioning action. Your staff should know that if you insist on such engagement, it is only because you feel it is necessary and that you will explain the rational once it is practical.

So I guess I’m recommending the age old adage of “lead by example, not by dictate”, although I’m fairly sure my kids would question whether this was my parenting style.

Graeme Gordon is executive director of Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting firms. This article was first published on his blog on the Praxity website

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