Supervisors often hear that they are to lead by example, but what does that really mean? To me it's quite simple; it means that before you can command others, you must learn to command yourself. You are the first person who has to obey in order to comply with the very things you demand of others. You have to be your own first and best follower if you want others to do the same. This isn't something you talk about; it's something you do every day without exception.
There are many concepts you have to understand in order to be an effective leader. Understanding that everything you say and do is being evaluated by your subordinates is often overlooked. They not only look to you for operational guidance, but more importantly to see what tempo you are going to set. If you set high standards, they will rise to meet them. If you set low standards, they will meet those as well. More importantly, if you can't meet your own standards, why should they?
At one time or another, we have all seen examples of what not to do. I have learned more from experiencing leadership failures than by reading any books on the subject. I only have to think back to my FTO days for my first example. One of my FTOs was so out of shape he couldn't catch his breath, let alone a bad guy. He was sloppy, his officer safety was horrendous, and his people skills were nonexistent. I swore I would never be anything like him. Lesson learned.
In order to be taken seriously as a leader, you must lead through experience and competence, not through title or position. It's a big deal to go from the person asking questions to being the one now responsible for answering them. Unfortunately, there are supervisors out there who think that once you get promoted your job is done. True leaders understand it's just the beginning. I will use something from my martial arts background to demonstrate what I mean.
There are those who believe becoming a black belt is quite an accomplishment. It is, but not in the way most believe. Earning your black belt doesn't make you a master but means you have learned the basics of the art you are studying. It signifies the transition to more meaningful learning and a more responsible position in the organization. It doesn't signify anything other than you being a good student who is ready for more.
Most of my martial arts training up to black belt revolved around imitating the movements of my instructors. I did what they did. I acted the way they acted. As I continued my training I began to understand their actions to the point where I could begin teaching as well. In law enforcement, earning your stripes puts you in very much the same position. You know the job and it's time to make sure members of your command know theirs.
Your subordinates will watch you and learn from you. They will follow your lead. We have a quick learning curve. If it's important to you, it will be important to them. If you don't believe me, take a look at your own organization. You know which squads work hard and which do not. You can also identify why; as a matter of fact, you can put a name to it. You will end up naming one of their supervisors as the culprit.
Let's face it, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. If you want your unit to have a good work ethic, yours better be the example of it. If you want them to have great-looking uniforms, yours better look that way. If you want them to have outstanding reports, work with them and don't accept anything less. If you want them to treat people with respect, you need to treat them with respect. Whether you like the idea or not, your subordinates are a reflection of you and your work product.
If you want to be an effective leader you must be your own best follower. You must obey the very orders you give, you must follow the very instructions you put out, and you must follow the very policies you help enforce. No one is going to take you seriously if you don't. In martial arts the difference between a student and master is the master has made his or her art a way of life. It goes beyond kicking, punching, and self-defense applications. If you are to become an effective leader, you must make leading by example your way of life. It becomes who you are and what you stand for. Taking charge of yourself will really determine how effective you are. Rank alone only gets you in the door. The rest is up to you.
Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.