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The 6 saboteurs of positive role models

4 min read


Young kids speak the truth, as anyone who’s ever been called out by a preschooler can tell you. I’ll never forget the time my 3-year-old son looked at me with his innocent, big brown eyes and said, “Mama, you told me that’s a bad word. How come you just said it?” Nothing shines the light on a failed role model opportunity faster than being called on the carpet by a person who barely reaches your waist.

But it’s not just kids who can see when our example-setting falls short. Although there are many ways to set an example, “Do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t one of them. People with influence — parents, managers, teachers, coaches — in short, anyone tasked with leading others knows that being a positive role model is vital. Eric Barker of the popular Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog writes, “Setting an example is more powerful than telling people what to do” and he backs it up with social science.

We know it’s important to set a positive example. So why is it easy to “talk the talk” but sometimes forget to walk it as well?

As a leader, have you given thought recently to the example you set with your actions? Are you living up to your own personal code of ethics? Even the best role models get waylaid from time to time with the saboteurs listed below. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  1. It’s what you were taught. Bad habits are learned. So if you’ve had a string of bad managers, you’re more likely to default to poor leadership choices unless you actively decide not to be “that boss.”
  2. “Just this one time.” Don’t go there. Thinking you can “sneak this one in” is a slippery slope. Before you know it, your unpleasant behavior has become a habit — and a bad one at that.
  3. It’s easier. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain easier to take the low road — initially. But sooner or later, a snarky comment or lazy choice comes back to get you.
  4. It’s faster. Doing the right thing might take more time, and that’s something few leaders have in abundance. But, as my mentor Mary used to say, “Pay now or pay later.” Meaning: do it right the first time, or pay for poor choices later on.
  5. You’re frustrated. Turf wars, budget shortfalls, and outrageous goals from senior management. It’s gets on your last nerve, doesn’t it? Don’t take it out on the very people who can help you get through this — your team.
  6. It feels good to let off a bit of steam. Yes, yes it does. But there are better ways to relieve the pressure and it’s important to know when you’re about to blow a gasket.

Social conventions (and a desire to stay employed) most likely will keep your team members from pointing out your incongruent behaviors as a leader. Their silence isn’t necessarily agreement. Don’t let frustration, time crunches and impatience steal your ability to set a positive example for your team.

Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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