My favorite book, and one of my favorite movies, is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In the latter part of the movie, Gregory Peck, playing attorney Atticus Finch, begins to walk through the courthouse. As he does this, the crowd grows silent and a lady in the crowded balcony nudges Atticus’ daughter, Scout, and says, “Scout, your father’s passin.”
What is most notable about this scene, and why it is one of my favorites of all movie scenes ever, is that Atticus Finch has earned the respect of the town based on his humble actions. Never in the movie does he self-promote or call attention to himself. Rather, he quietly serves the people around him and tries to not draw any notice to himself.
Wilfred Peterson, in The Art of Living, writes, “The leader sees things through the eyes of his followers. He puts himself in their shoes and helps them make their dreams come true. The leader does not say, ‘Get going!’ Instead he says, ‘Let’s go!’ and leads the way. He does not walk behind with a whip; he is out in front with a banner.”
Stated simply but powerfully, “Walk Your Talk.” And from another perspective, “The life you live is the life you teach.”
Francis of Assisi, a famous priest and Catholic theologian, is generally thought to be the author of the quotation, “Witness for Christ each day, and if necessary use words.”
No matter how eloquent your speech, or how much charisma you might have, you cannot be an effective leader if your actions do not reflect your words. Through the years I have worked with many business owners who desired to become effective leaders but were never able to internalize and actualize what it takes to be a true leader.
True leadership does not depend on position or status. It is a function of the character and example of the leader. This is why the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird is so special to me. The respect the crowd demonstrates toward Atticus Finch is not based on his position or his self-proclaimed status. Rather the respect shown to him is based on his willingness to use his talents to serve his family and his community.
Why are some people unable to become effective leaders? It is because the path to effective leadership is in private, away from the public eye. All great leaders are made, but not in the moments when they lead publically. Rather, their leadership skills are brewed in private moments of reading, reflection, and prayer. Their leadership skills are carved out of hours of thinking about how to become a better and more effective person. The power of leadership is born in private moments of growth as leaders prepare themselves to lead others by first learning to lead themselves.
Thomas J. Watson, former Chairman of IBM, captured the essence of this point when he said, “Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.”
Good leaders lead by example because it is what ultimately gives one’s leadership power. Actions cannot easily be faked over a period of time. Therefore, by walking your talk, you become a person others want to follow. When leaders say one thing, but do another, they erode trust – a critical element of productive leadership.
Here is a sample of the many ways to lead by example. If you work on and master just a handful of these, you will significantly increase your leadership effectiveness.
1. Take responsibility. This may be the most critical element to being an effective leader. Leaders accept responsibility; failures blame others. No one will follow a person in a leadership position who blames others.
2. Act with integrity. Be open and honest. Focusing on the truth ensures that issues are dealt with and lessens the frequency of rumors and gossip.
3. Act boldly when challenges and disappointments happen. Be courageous and take calculated risks that demonstrate commitment to a larger purpose. If unsuccessful, take responsibility. If successful, share the recognition with the team.
4. Acknowledge failure and exhibit the truth that making mistakes is a key to achieving success. If you don’t punish mistakes, then it makes it okay for your team to innovate. Remember that mistakes are the tuition of success. No one can achieve extraordinary success without experiencing failure along the way.
5. Try and try again. Obstacles come to instruct, not destruct. Expect challenges and lead the team over, under or around them to show that obstacles do not limit the team’s success.
6. Create solutions. Don’t dwell on problems. When problems occur, be the first to offer solutions and then ask your team get involved in solving the problem.
7. Listen. Ask questions. Seek to understand before you develop you own opinion. Value the ideas and opinions of others on the team and build an environment where the team pools its learning to achieve greater progress
8. Provide an example of a balanced life. Make family and health a priority. Don’t overwork. A balanced team with proper priorities will remain successful for a long time.
9. Model hard work. Roll up your sleeves and use your strengths to have an impact toward the success of the team. Your example of effort will inspire greatness in your team.
You can’t model all of these successfully at the start. Pick one or two where there is room for you to grow personally, and work on those. In time, you can learn to master most if not all of them.