What Can Entrepreneurs Learn from Gandhi & Alexander the Great?

There's the boss who tells everyone to stay late, and then leaves promptly at 5.00pm to go golfing. There's the supervisor who criticizes everyone for spending time on the Internet, but is discovered buying groceries online in the middle of the afternoon. And the CFO who recommends layoffs to stop "unnecessary spending," but then buys herself brand-new luxury office furniture.

Do you know any of these people?

There's hardly anything worse for company morale than leaders who practice the "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy. When this happens, you can see the loss of enthusiasm spreading among the staff. It's like watching the air go out of a balloon – and cynicism and disappointment will quickly take the place of the goodwill they felt before.

Why does the team feel so let down?  Each person knows he has lived up to his own values.  Why does the team motivation plunge so quickly?

It’s because they see the boss as a role model.  If you're in a leadership position, you have a responsibility to your team. They look to you for guidance and strength; that's what a role model is – it’s not a choice or a nice-to-have.  It’s there, and it has to be there. 

You are the leader of your team.  This makes you a role model whether you like it or not.

So, how can you make sure you are a good role model?

As a leader, part of your job is to inspire the people around you to push themselves – and, in turn, the company – to greatness. To do this, you must show them the way by doing it yourself.

Stop and think about the inspiring people who have changed the world with their examples. Consider what Mahatma Gandhi accomplished through his actions: He spent most of his adult life living what he preached to others. He was committed to nonviolent resistance to protest injustice, and people followed in his footsteps. He led them, and India, to independence – because his life proved, by example, that it could be done.

Although Gandhi's situation is very different from yours, the principle is the same. When you lead by example, you create a picture of what's possible. People can look at you and say, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it." When you lead by example, you make it easy for others to follow you.

Look at legendary businessman, Jack Welch of General Electric. Welch knew that to push GE to new heights, he had to turn everything upside down. So that's just what he did. He developed the whole idea of a "boundaryless organization." This means that everyone is free to brainstorm and think of ideas – instead of waiting for someone "higher up" in the bureaucracy to think of them first. He wanted his team "turned loose" and he promised to listen to ideas from anyone in the company. And he did. Everyone from the lowest line workers to senior managers got his attention – if they had something to say or a new idea that might make the company better. It wasn't just "talk," and it didn't take his team long to figure that out.

Welch stayed true to his passions and what he knew was right. As a result, GE became an incredibly successful company under his management. His team was always willing to follow his lead, because the people within it knew that he always kept his word.

What does this mean for you? If you give yourself to your team and show them the way, then they will want to follow you anywhere.

You don’t do the right thing to become a good role model. You become a good role model because you do the right thing.

The term “role model” was coined by Robert K. Merton, a distinguished American sociologist. He was a University Professor at Columbia University from 1941 to 1978, where he researched the socialization of medical students. Merton’s hypothesis was that an individual will compare himself with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.

But the concept of role models did not start with Merton’s studies.

Do you think that Alexander the Great's soldiers would have fought so hard for him if he had sat on top of a hill, safe from the battle? He would have been just another average general in our history books, instead of the example of a successful leader that we know today. His soldiers followed him beyond the frontiers of the known world because they believed in him and shared his energy and his dreams.

Many articles have been written about role models in business.  Often, some very impressive names come up.  Richard Branson, Larry Ellison, Warren Buffet… all names that we know and admire for their success and the way they have handled it.

But “What about me?” you think. I am a successful manager and leader. But I will never be a Richard Branson or a Larry Ellison.  I could spend my life emulating these people, but they are rich and famous – in another league from me.

If someone asked me who my role models were, I might include some of these famous names. But my list of role models would also include my mother, my father, my first boss et Estée Lauder Companies, my mentor – who has been with me for many years – and several of my long-term close friends.  These are not people who will ever become rich and famous. They will never run multi-million dollar businesses. These people are my role models because they behave in the way I want to behave; they treat people the way I believe people should be treated; they make decisions based on values that I hold; their set of truths is my set of truths.

And they do not behave like this because they want to be role models. They behave like this because they live their lives according to their own values.

When you live by your own values, you have become your own role model.

So what happens if you don't?

We've seen just how powerful it can be to lead by example. But what happens when you don't follow this rule? How does your team feel when you tell them to do one thing, and then you do the exact opposite?

When leaders don't "practise what they preach," it can be almost impossible for a team to work together successfully. How can anyone trust a leader who talks about one thing, but does another?

Consider what might have happened if Gandhi had, even one time, been in a physical fight with his opposition. His important message of nonviolent protest would have completely lost its value and credibility.  His followers would have looked at him with suspicion and distrust – and may have stopped following him.

And so it is with your team. If you say one thing and do another, they won't follow you enthusiastically. Why should they? Everything you tell them after that may meet with suspicion and doubt. They may not trust that you're doing the right thing, or that you know what you're talking about. They may no longer believe in you.

Good leaders push their people forward with excitement, inspiration, trust, and vision. If you lead a team that doesn't trust you, enthusiasm will disappear and productivity will drop. The vision you're trying so hard to make happen will lose its appeal; your team won't trust you anymore.

There is no neutral. If you are not a good role model, you are a bad role model.

Make sure you are a good role model:

Your values

  • Look closely at your personal values
  • Live your values every moment of the day 

Your behaviour

  • Look at yourself, listen to yourself
  • Think before you speak and act
  • Picture yourself as others see you
  • Don’t try to be witty, funny or clever if it might be taken the wrong way
  • Remember that even your most trusted colleague may repeat something you say in private

Tips for your personal development

  • Carry out a 360 degree feedback every two years, this is a great tool to discover how people perceive you and plan in some action points to develop your weaker areas.
  • Work on developing your communication in general and on your presentation skills. Your leadership communication skills is what people will remember about you.

Diana Vanbrabant has over 20 years of international experience in senior management positions in the international training divisions of multi-national corporations. Today she develops leaders to be at the top of their game. www.etacc.eu

As well as having trained more than 1,500 professionals in 15 different countries worldwide, Diana has coached over 100 senior managers and directors during executive one-on-one coaching sessions.

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