Tech Leader Pro podcast 3, Leading by example

Published on 2020-09-07 by John Collins.



Like me I am sure at some point in your life, someone has mentioned to you that you should “lead by example”, but what exactly does that mean? When you thinking about it, a leader does not carry out the same tasks as the other members of a team, so you cannot provide a direct example for a subject matter expect to follow for example.

So we cannot take the term “lead by example” literately, but it still contains value. In my mind, the example you need to set is related to attitude and personality, or “soft skills”, as opposed to “hard” technical skills.

Firstly however you need to decide: what is the example you want to set? Frankly this is open to personal opinion, and the context in which you operate. Instead of trying to provide you with a “one size fits all” list of attributes you should include in your ideal example, which I believe is impossible, I will instead provide you with my personal list.


As I leader I believe you need to behave ethically. Firstly you need to provide a good ethical example for others to follow, and secondly you have legal and professional obligations to behave in an ethical way.

Ethics is of course a broad topic, but for me the key ethics I try to incorporate into my personal repertoire are a combination of honesty and hard work.

Honesty is important to build trust, both with your team mates and also your customers. Being honest is not easy as it sounds, for example sometimes you have to tell someone something that they don’t want to hear, and that can make you feel uncomfortable. The honest, direct approach to communications is often referred to as “radical candor”[1], and can be difficult for you to get right as a leader: you need to be honest, but not brutally honest, therefore there is a happy medium point that can be difficult to land on consistently.

Nonetheless, honesty will at least let your team know exactly where they stand. Honesty it not a fluffy “feel good” approach, instead it is direct and robust and can make people feel uneasy in the beginning, but hopefully they appreciate it over time.

Hard work is also a difficult example to set and follow. Hard work does not mean working 80 hours a week, and demanding your team mates to do the same. That will simply become a death march, and most of your team will quit. Instead, hard work is about the quality of the concentration applied to a topic, not the duration of the time.

Leaders can demonstrate hard work by showing their willingness to really dig deep into a topics until they understand it, rather than simply saying “this is to hard” and waving it away for others to own. Leaders can also demonstrate hard work by their personal output, which may not be lines of code, but can take many other forms that are visible to the team.

I always tell my teams the same thing: I do not judge you by how many hours you spend at work, but instead by the quality of your output. With that in mind, someone can easily work an 8 hour day and get all of their work done, provided they apply themselves during that time to the tasks at hand.

In my mind, someone working very long hours is usually a warning sign that they are consistently behind in their work, rather than it being a badge of honour, it is the opposite.


Everybody has an ego, but it is important to keep that under control. For me, modesty is the best approach, because it enables you to freely admit if you are wrong, rather than being defensive which is often the case with someone with a large ego. For a modest leader, giving credit to others while taken little directly also comes easier, which in turn is good for team moral. Modesty is a key character trait that a leader should possess, and try to promote as a virtue in their teams.

A few years ago, the term “artisan developer” was in wide use when describing a desirable virtue for software engineers. It implies a pride in coding and software quality, similar to the artisans of old who worked on creative projects during the renaissance in Europe. I always liked the use of the word “artisan”, but prefer another old fashioned English word, “diligence”, which implies careful, determined, and persistent work.

Diligence implies getting the job done, with high quality and attention to detail, and not letting up in applying effort until the job is completed. I love this characteristic in all team members.

Finally when we are talking about desirable characteristics for leaders to promote via example, “smartness” is another old school term that I love: because smart implies optimized. Ideally we should aim to work smart, not hard. Optimized work flows are easy. If it starts to feel like hard work, then you are probably stuck in an anti-pattern, namely following a bad work pattern. Great leaders make everything look easy, and are therefore “smart”.

A great mentor of mine once told me “don’t be a busy fool”. What he meant was, you could spend your day busily doing the wrong things, which is foolish. Smart people spend their limited time doing the right things, therefore minimizing their efforts while maximizing their results. That balance is not easy to achieve however as it requires good judgement, and is even harder to demonstrate for your team to follow.


Software engineers respect a certain skill to an extraordinary level, namely technical competency, in fact if a leader does not demonstrate this engineers will lose respect for their leader very quickly and will not follow any other examples they set. I spoke about this before in episode 1 of this podcast, but it is worth repeating again: high technical skills are mandatory for leaders in a technical field.

Leaders should not only set this example, but mandate it as a skill that all of the engineers must demonstrate daily: if I find myself knowing more about a technical topic than a senior engineer in one of teams, I begin to lose respect for that engineer. It cuts both ways. From the leader’s side, I expect my engineers to be more knowledgeable than me when it comes to technology. My technical competency level is designed simply to enable me to be useful participant in the conversations.

Soft skills however are a different story. It is perfectly acceptable for engineers to have medium or even low level soft skills, some of the best engineers I worked with in my career were terrible communicators for example. They could write high-quality code to handle any use case, but if you put a marker in their hands and asked them to explain at a whiteboard in plane English what their code does, they would struggle.

The leader however does not get a pass when it comes to soft skills: you must been a great communicator, both at a technical level and in plane English. You can set a great example in both written and verbal communications for your engineers to follow, but just don’t expect them all to follow that example successfully, and be fine with that (for most of them it is just not within their skill set).

Will they follow the example?

Setting a great example to follow is the first step, but then you need ask yourself: “will they follow your example”? Obviously people in your team will make up their own minds. They have to want to follow your example, you cannot force it. For many, work is just a transactional relationship, based on an exchange of time and effort for money, they do not care beyond that.

However that is not to say you do not have influence over your team mates, and there are a number of factors that determine the strength of your influence. A leader who has high degrees of charisma also has a high degrees of influence, and that charisma is connected to your communication skills. If you can inspire your team via your communications, then you can influence them to follow your positive example.

Your credibility with the team also impacts on the amount of influence you have. Naturally the lower your credibility, the lower your influence. You can increase your credibility by keeping your word on following up on important items for your team mates, and by maintaining good competency with technology in order to “sound like you know what you are talking about”.

However in spite of your best efforts, you must accept that not everybody in your team will follow your lead, so you need to ensure that you focus your efforts on the willing audience members.


So to recap, today we discussed that:

  1. Leading by example is less about technical skills, and more about setting the right soft skills.
  2. As a leader, you need to decide what soft skills are the most important for you, in terms of setting the right tone for your team to follow.
  3. For my list, I include a set of ethics, character traits, and skills that are important to me.
  4. For ethics, I believe that honesty and hard work are the best example to provide. Honesty to “radical candor” levels can be challenging to include in your team culture, but the rewards are worth it.
  5. Hard work does not mean working long hours, but instead implies a maximum amount of concentration being applied during the time available.
  6. In terms of character traits, modesty, diligence, and working smartly are the main touch points for me. Modesty is a super power for leaders, enabling you to admit mistakes, while allocating credit around the team for successful outcomes.
  7. For skills, a leader needs a list of soft and hard skills, but the soft skills are more important for them, while hard skills are more important for engineers.
  8. Finally in spite of all your efforts, there is no guarantee that your team will follow your example, as they have to be willing participants. Your personally charisma can influence here, but there are limits to that. You should therefore focus more of you efforts on the willing participants.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!




File details: 16 MB MP3, 11 mins 7 secs duration.


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