Leading by example

Humans have known for millenia that neglecting to lead by example does not lead to
sustainable success. As many a tyrant has discovered, the orgies and conspicuous
consumption may be fun while they last, but the ultimate price is high.

I can't think of a corporate leader today who comes close to repeating the
spectacular mistakes of a Nero or a Ceausescu or a Gaddafi -- but there are subtler
ways to fail.

Contemporary management jargon is full of words like "alignment" and "integrity"
which basically come down to this: If the entire organisation, from the Board on
down, is not playing by the same rules, with the same goals in mind, you can expect
trouble. A Board that demands accountability, ownership, strict financial discipline
and similar good things, but does not deliver these things in its turn, is inviting
cynicism and disloyalty. Such leaders should not be surprised to find their
organisations filled with people intent on working every situation to their own
personal advantage.

So what do things look like, when executives and managers are leading by example?
One of the most important telltale clues can be found in how information moves up,
down and across an organisation. Do senior managers make decisions based on gut
instinct, personal whim or hard information? If they use information, does it
accurately reflect what's really going on? Do mid-level and junior employees
understand the rules of the decision making process and trust its efficacy?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no", or even "ermmm...", the red flags
should go up immediately.

Of course, making decisions based on hard information is not always easy. The
data may be saying that a leader's personal pet project is failing, or that customers
hate the new packaging you were so excited about, or that you made the wrong call
on a new product line. We all have cherished ideas about how the world should be --
it's all too easy to ignore the clues that tell us we're wrong. Sadly, reality has a way
of asserting itself no matter how hard we protest.

Effective leadership requires, firstly, having accurate information -- and
secondly, that leaders should act on that information. The first can be delivered by
good systems; the second is where the real test of leadership comes in.