How to Lead by Example in a Small Business


When you start hiring a team – whether it’s your 1st or 10th team member, the truth is – having someone else in the business changes your role.  Now you have to decide what kind of leader you’ll be, and how you’ll get there.

It surprises a lot of people to hear that leading and managing are not the same thing.

A manager’s focus is on execution and maintenance – who can do the job, and how is it getting done.  But a leader is focused on vision, strategy and development.  They’re all about clearing away obstacles so the team can do their best work.  A leader’s field of vision is much wider – they’re looking at the whole environment, both external (does the team have the right tools and skills to do the job) and internal (do they understand the ultimate vision, are they being challenged and developed to bring out their best – in a phrase, are you coaching them).

So, in practice – what would that look like?

Let’s say the client reps in an HR company have to be sure all client employee manuals are updated each year.  A manager would look at this task, maybe put together a schedule, assign someone to research the updated laws, ask to review the end product before it goes to the client, and track who did what when.

But, looking at this process through the lens of a leader – you would think about things like, what’s the end goal we want for the client.  Well, we want them to be aware of the most current employment laws.  So, how can we support that more often than once a year, and how can we make it a painless process both for the end user (their employees) to access and use that information, and for the client rep to gather the changes.  And, what solutions can the team come up with to address those end goals.  What obstacles are in the way that need to be moved.

You see, the leader’s lens is all about vision (where are we trying to go), strategy (how will we get there) and development (how can we grow the team so they make that flywheel continue to go around).

I would guess, that in your past, you’ve worked with a lot of managers who called themselves leaders.  The truth is, true leaders are a much rarer breed.  Oh, they both have their place and value – but to make sure you’re guiding your business to success – you’ll need to step into the leader role.

What’s that saying by John Maxwell – If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.

So, how do you get people to follow you?

Oh, there are lots of reasons people will follow – it could be because you have the title, or they just really like you, or maybe you consistently deliver results.  These are all excellent traits – but the best, most consistent way to lead – is by setting the example.

“If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.”  ~ John Maxwell

First off – establish a baseline of excellence.  If you want excellence from your team, you have to set the standard.  You have to demand excellence from yourself.  So, grow your knowledge – read, listen to podcasts, attend conferences and seminars, take classes.  And don’t just stick to your industry, listen to the stories and advice of other entrepreneurs.  How did they grow, how do they lead, what roadblocks did they encounter, and how did they set them aside. Join a Mastermind.

Consistently show your commitment by being early and prepared.  I know it sounds like a small thing – and we all have a ton of things to do, so racing from one meeting or call to another is a hallmark of our days.  But manage time in your schedule so you can prepare, and show up early (because, we all know on time is actually late).  When you’re prepared, you show your team that they matter, and they’re important to you. Important enough for you to take the time to be properly ready to engage in whatever problem you’re working on together.

Be rock solid in the vision.  If you don’t’ hold the vision, no one will.  Always have it top of mind and at the ready.  Use it as you ponder decisions.  Talk about it with the team, clients and colleagues.  It’s your North Star.  When you hold tight to the vision, it will protect you from going too far off in the wrong direction.

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Next – maintain a high level of integrity.  You have to show that your behavior aligns with your values.  If one of your values is excellence, and you produce sloppy memos and reports for your team, you are not operating in integrity.  I know it can be challenging to be constantly checking in to make sure you’re in alignment with your values, but you have to do it, and do it often.  You have to hold yourself to a higher standard.  That’s what leaders do.  It’s not good enough to just ‘get by’, you have to hold your head up, back straight and march by.  And show courage – which has nothing to do with having no fear.  Courage is all about doing it in spite of the fear.  You’ve got to step up and take on things that scare you.  And when things don’t go your way., or you find you took a wrong turn or made a bad decision, don’t be defensive.  Remember, you can look at it as a failure, or a lesson.  And for my money – looking at it as a lesson is much more helpful and productive.

And, always remember your role as coach for your people.  Work to bring out their best.  Listen, have compassion, and don’t take them for granted.  When the situation arises, go to bat for them.  Remember: give credit – take the blame.

Those are some of the ways you can lead by example, even in a small business.  Tell me below in the comments, what are some of your best leadership traits, and which ones do you think you need to work on.

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