Leading by example is the most effective form of inspirational, motivational leadership. To inspire employees to adopt the behaviors they value, leaders must demonstrate these behaviors consistently and authentically. Leadership coaching can help you develop these behaviors and attitudes and turn them into powerful habits.

“Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” – Paul Wellstone.

Leading by example is the ultimate test of leadership. To lead by example means to “walk the walk.” Leaders who provide meaningful examples to their followers do so by living, acting, assuming attitudes, and behaving consistently according to their values, goals, and purpose. Modeling the behaviors leaders like to see in their employees and peers is the most effective way to spark and sustain positive change.

positive example

Never underestimate the power of positive examples.

The beneficial impact of leading by example is profound and far-reaching. Leaders who adopt this genuine and honest form of leadership:

  • Command trust and credibility
  • Inspire and motivate others
  • Hold themselves and others accountable
  • Communicate effectively
  • Provide a model of success for others
  • Facilitate the organization-wide alignment of principles and behaviors

As a leadership coaching expert, I see leading by example as one of the central tenets of intelligent leadership. It is a principle I observe in my life and coaching activities. Leading by example allows me to establish rapport with clients, demonstrate coaching principles, provide practical guidance, and model a growth-focused mindset.

As such, I have first-hand experience of exemplary leadership in action. I have also seen many clients apply these leadership principles successfully.

In this article, I dissect the subtleties of exemplary leadership, including the characteristics that define exemplary leaders, the impact of exemplary leadership, and practical tips on how to lead by example. Read on to learn how to make a lasting, sustainable, and profoundly positive difference as a leader.

Characteristics of Exemplary Leaders

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell.

Exemplary leaders display leadership traits that set them apart from immature leaders with low self-awareness who fail to appreciate the power of example.

Intelligent leaders understand that they must learn to lead themselves before they lead others. They know that this aspect of leadership is the most challenging, as it requires ample determination, discipline, and commitment. Some other characteristics of exemplary leaders are:

  • Integrity. To earn followers’ trust, exemplary leaders must demonstrate high moral standards, transparency, and honesty.
  • Authenticity. People sense authentic behavior and reward it with their trust and admiration.
  • Resilience. Leadership maturity allows exemplary leaders to bounce back from failures and face adversity with optimism and composure.
  • Accountability. Exemplary leaders hold themselves and others accountable. They assume responsibility for their mistakes and find ways to learn from setbacks instead of seeking to deflect blame.
  • Visionary thinking. Leaders who inspire others through their words and deeds have compelling visions they communicate clearly and often.
  • An exemplary leader doesn’t shy away from calculated risks.
  • Inspirational leaders are humble in the face of success, seeking to deflect credit toward others instead of basking in the glory of their achievements.

The Impact of Leading by Example

Leaders’ actions always have far-reaching impacts that ripple through their organizations. Those who lead by positive example can amplify this effect, using it to build solid, development-focused organizational cultures.


The benefits of exemplary leadership are many and far-reaching.

Exemplary leadership shapes the leader-employee dynamic in different ways.

  • Inspiration. A leader’s foremost job is to inspire their teams to do their best. A positive leadership example is worth more than a thousand empty words. Exemplary leaders can energize, motivate, empower, and support their teams through their actions.
  • Work culture. Teams look to their leaders for guidance, and purpose-aligned actions provide the most straightforward, genuine, and sensible guidelines for everyone. Leaders who “walk the walk” inspire their employees to do the same, leading to organizational cultures that value collaboration and innovation.
  • Motivation and Engagement. A true leader shows the way by going the way. It’s one thing to tell people where to go and what to do. It is quite another to go there and do what needs to be done, showing people what you expect of them. An exemplary leader is highly motivating and engaging for followers. A positive example leaves no room for doubt and debate.
  • Innovation and Creativity. Exemplary leaders demonstrate creativity and encourage calculated risk-taking. Their attitudes toward failure and learning rub off on their followers. They communicate a clear vision and reward forward-facing thinking and innovation.
  • Leaders are responsible for setting behavioral and productivity standards for their team members. If they want their teams to work hard, be resilient, and consistently beat the odds, they must do the same. Setting standards is an opportunity leaders cannot afford to forego.

Strategies for Leading by Example

“The three most important ways to lead people are: by example, by example, by example.” – Albert Schweitzer.

Some leaders find it natural to adopt and demonstrate exemplary behaviors. These behaviors must be genuine, however. People recognize authenticity and reward it with their trust. They also recognize imposters and give them nothing but their contempt.

Here’s how you can lead by authentic example.


Intelligent leaders aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and discuss their shortcomings, together with the emotions they may elicit. Showing your human side encourages others to be human, honest, and authentic. When no one is afraid of vulnerability, a work culture based on honest feedback, transparency, and honesty results.


Optimism and positivity are necessary leadership traits. Gratitude offers the most straightforward opportunity to develop these traits.

When you’re grateful, you are happy. Grateful leadership begets positivity, team engagement, and appreciation for successes and learning opportunities.

To feel grateful, focus on something you truly appreciate in your life. Writing thank you notes to people who helped you is another way to exercise gratitude.


You can’t be grateful and unhappy at the same time.


As an executive coaching expert, I consider empathy to be an indispensable ingredient of intelligent, effective leadership. Empathic leadership distills the essence of modern, post-industrial leadership. It requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It allows you to listen to people, feel with them, and provide an outstanding leadership example for your followers.


Transparency is one of the cornerstones of trust. As such, it is incredibly empowering. Employees who understand every aspect of their business and organization find it easy to assume psychological ownership over the goals, purpose, and values of their organizations.

By being transparent, leaders promote and facilitate transparency throughout the organizational ranks.


Owning up to mistakes and holding yourself accountable for results sets a stellar example to your followers. Downplaying mistakes and deflecting responsibility are toxic behaviors that can sabotage and scuttle organizations. The best way to defeat these behaviors is to set a positive example in this sense.

Owning up to mistakes sends employees the message that it is OK to experiment and make mistakes.

Work-Life Balance

Striking the appropriate work-life balance is essential to avoid burnout for executives and employees alike. Exemplary leaders make a point of demonstrating a healthy work-life balance. They also set boundaries at the workplace.

You can make it clear, for instance, that when you go on vacation, you won’t answer work-related phone calls or emails. By doing so, you convey to your employees that you expect them to disconnect completely while on vacation as well.

Work Ethic

As the leader of your organization, it is your job to demonstrate an exemplary work ethic. Leaders are the first to arrive at work and the last to leave for a reason. And that reason is to show commitment to their work and the people they lead.

To lead by example, consider what behaviors make a genuine difference for your organization and goals, and make a conscious effort to embody them.

Overcoming Challenges

Leading by example is a highly effective form of leadership that entails many challenges and requires sacrifices on the part of the leader.

  • Establishing behaviors and attitudes to deal with setbacks is one thing. Engaging in these behaviors while facing a frustrating failure is quite another.
  • Work-life balance. The theory behind establishing and modeling an adequate work-life balance is simple enough. Often, however, the complexities of leadership roles and responsibilities creep up, gradually upending this essential balance. Practice self-care to head off burnout. Always make time for activities that recharge your batteries.
  • Expectations and personal sacrifices. Exemplary leadership may entail constant pressure to perform at a high level. Be open about your abilities and vulnerabilities to manage the pressure of expectations. By doing so, you set another positive example for your team members.

The Bottom Line

Exemplary leadership is the most genuine and natural form of inspirational leadership. Leaders who model the behaviors they want to see in their employees are more likely to succeed than others. The key to the success of exemplary leadership is to turn desirable behaviors into habits assuming their full, authentic ownership.

To adopt optimal behaviors successfully, reflect on your actions and behaviors and identify areas where you can improve. Enlist the help of a business coaching expert for better results.

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