If you ever played follow the leader or Simon Says, you’ve practiced leading by example—even if you didn’t know it.
Part of being a successful leader is inspiring and motivating your team. Developing your leadership skills and learning to actively lead by example can help you model effective ways for your team to make the most impact. Everything you do as a leader could potentially be an example for your team—so what’s truly leading by example? In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of leading by example and share how one Asana leader practices leading by example in her daily life.
Leading by example is a leadership style where you model the behavior you want to see in your team members. When you lead by example, you don’t just push team members towards excellence—rather, you actively demonstrate that excellence. Leading by example is the difference between saying, “You can do this” and “We can do this together.” Though the support and encouragement in the former is great, the latter builds connection, camaraderie, and trust.
People who lead by example are actively demonstrating that they value their team’s work by carrying some of the weight themselves. This leadership style fosters high levels of engagement and buy-in because leaders actively demonstrate that they’re invested in their team’s initiatives.
Leading by example can increase trust and team engagement. The people you manage pay a lot of attention to what you say—and what you do. If what you’re doing and saying are inconsistent, that inconsistency can lead to frustration and lack of trust. But if you can model the right example to your team, they’ll be inspired to go along, too.
In particular, leading by example can:
Inspire the people around you
Build trust between you and your team
Create an inclusive, collaborative work environment
Build a culture of accountability
Increase productivity through teamwork
Set the standards of success on your team
Increase team loyalty, engagement, and retention
Contribute to great team building
Everyone has their own unique leadership style. There is no right way to be a leader—but here are the five main qualities that people who lead by example share:
The simplest way to lead by example is to lead from the front, instead of from the sidelines. By getting involved in your team’s initiatives, you are showing them that you value their work, understand their contribution, and appreciate their time. Getting involved doesn’t mean taking over the initiative—but rather, showing your team that you support their work.
Leading isn’t just about managing. Good leadership is also about motivating and inspiring your team. In addition to leading by example on projects, always work to put your team first and look out for them. This can surface in a lot of different ways, like:
Making sure credit goes where credit is due
Overseeing team member workload and capacity to prevent burnout
Modeling effective workplace communication
Creating strong team collaboration practices
When you lead by example, you’re providing an example of how your team can act. That said, your team isn’t always going to do things exactly your way. Trying to manage team members on every little thing can lead to frustration and lack of motivation. Instead, trust your team to get their best work done, and support them if and when they need you. Great leaders even encourage their team to try new ways of doing things.
This doesn’t mean you can’t coach and provide helpful feedback when appropriate. Good leaders are always looking for coaching opportunities. Instead of telling your team what you want them to do, model the work ethic you want to see from your team members, peers, and direct reports.Read: How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders
The best leaders make room for flexibility. We all know that things change and the best-laid plans don’t always work out, which is why flexibility is a key leadership skill. In fact, 73% of knowledge workers believe that organizations can be more resilient to change if plans are flexible.
Sometimes, plans will have to change, priorities will get rearranged, or timelines will shift around. You might miss a goal or have to re-think a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Learning to roll with these punches—and more importantly, support your team while they also roll with the punches—can help you build great leadership skills. Additionally, make sure you’re always in contact with your team so they have the information and context to get their highest-impact work done.
There are two types of listening: listening to reply and listening to understand. Listening to understand is a key element of active listening. When you listen to understand, you’re focusing on fully comprehending what your team member is saying—instead of listening to respond with your own opinion.
This is especially important if a team member comes to you with feedback. It’s natural to get defensive when someone offers feedback—but keep in mind that your team member is offering this constructive criticism to help you improve. True leaders lean into constructive feedback, thank the person for sharing, and work to do better.Read: How to give and take constructive criticism
Like a lot of leadership styles, leading by example can feel a little ambiguous. To see how it’s done, we asked an Asana leader to tell us what leading by example means to her. Here’s what she had to say:
A: Leading by example is critical to showing up as an authentic leader. To really inspire, grow, and build empathetic teams, a leader must model the values and behaviors they are hoping to nurture in others.
It also can make for a more accessible and compassionate leadership model. As a leader, a major part of my role is to encourage and coach teams to share in their personal wins and initiatives. The best way to do that is to provide clear, visible examples of how to create space for all voices, achievements, learnings, and inclusive, collaborative work dynamics.Read: Dustin Moskovitz shares his lessons on leadership
This is especially important as we navigate new models of remote-first, hybrid, and distributed teams. The way we work is more global than ever, and I think we’re going to see a wider variety of work environments moving forward. For leaders who manage hybrid teams, it’s particularly important to model inclusion and make sure every team member—regardless of timezone or location—feels comfortable on your team.Read: Managing distributed teams: How to lead with cross-cultural empathy
A: When you lead by example, you help your team live its grounding principles by creating social norms, offering transparency, and maintaining consistency. Think of your team’s mission or values. Leading by example means sticking to those principles—whether things are going smoothly or not. That way, you can reinforce how your team will co-create and operate together. If your team encounters an unprecedented challenge—like responding to a global pandemic without a playbook—you can help your team navigate through this change together and come out stronger on the other side.
For example, one of the main values we share on the Corporate Marketing team is clarity and context. When we had to pivot to remote work, I worked with our team leads to quickly create a business continuity plan to guide how we would continue to communicate—even while everyone was remote. That way, we could maintain the same level of clarity and context that our team needs to thrive. Now that we’re preparing to return to the office and in-person collaboration as a global, distributed team, I want to ensure we have a playbook for how we’ll do that together intentionally and authentically as well.Read: Reuniting and thriving in a distributed world with Asana
A: I have four top tips for leading by example:
Be real. So many leaders are hesitant to show vulnerability or admit that they may not have an answer. I've learned that being real and communicating transparently on a given topic reinforces trust and often opens up more dialogue. When you communicate directly, you and your team are able to find answers together.
Step in as a player (as well as a coach). I never ask my team to do something I wouldn't be willing to do myself. Whether it’s subbing in on a project, helping cover when team members are taking time for themselves, or working through decisions, I always commit to co-creation and being available and present to dig in alongside the team so they see—and feel—supported and empowered.
Foster belonging and recognition. Advocating for all voices across my team is a core value that I bring to every role. I want to ensure that the team's purpose is aligned with our mission and values every day so that team members can thrive in their roles, be recognized for their talents, and grow their impact at Asana. In turn, this creates an environment where team members learn to support and advocate for others—which is incredibly important.
Love your craft. When you enjoy your craft and visibly share that excitement with your team, it creates an environment of curiosity, connection, and understanding for how their work and ideas propel the team forward. It also means there is more laughter, joy, and creativity in the work itself—which always leads to better results. We aren’t working in a vacuum, and I think it’s important to create work that the team can take pride in collectively.
Like all leadership skills, learning to lead by example takes time and practice. It’s worth the effort, though. Building this skill can help you gain higher levels of engagement and trust on your team. Whether you’re managing a group of direct reports or leading a team without being a manager, leading by example shows team members that you value them.
To continue developing your leadership skills, read our article on the difference between leadership and management.