Speaking Volumes

You may believe your actions speak for you, but sometimes actions are not loud enough.


“No one told me what to do or why to do it.”
Leading by example is the default mode of most new leaders. New leaders often choose to demonstrate their expectations by being a role model because it is difficult and uncomfortable to describe behavioral expectations, values or philosophy that they would like to see exhibited by their team. Often, they aren’t sure what behaviors and values are most important for the team to be successful, and they have not yet developed a leadership philosophy. Naturally, expectations for the team are derived from their own experiences, but up to this point, they haven’t even needed to understand or articulate what has made them successful. When there is no one watching us—when we aren’t a role model—we don’t give much thought to how we behave, let alone why we behave the way we do.

“What happens if I expect from others what I can’t deliver myself?”  
Almost all of us know that credibility is destroyed if a leader says one thing and does another. The inconsistency between words and actions speaks volumes, it is said, particularly when good behaviors are expected of others and the leader behaves poorly. Maybe it is the fear of not being able to live up to our own expectations that keeps the leader from actually articulating expectations and values. Vulnerability and the willingness to admit when we haven’t lived up to our own expectations or values, actually builds trust rather than erode it.

“I struggle with the keeping a work/life balance. So, I choose to leave early on Friday and come in for a few hours on Sunday.  When needed though, I have back up plans to stay later.”
Leading as a role model alone has limited effectiveness. Actions do speak to your team–if they are listening (watching). Communicating with actions alone, however, leaves a lot unspoken and is open to misinterpretation.   Learning is a lot faster and more direct if a leader connects their actions with the reasons for their actions. The explanation allows others to understand the conditions, the nuances, of a decision to act in a certain way. The situation that they will likely find themselves in will not be exactly the same. If they are looking to you as a role model to help them figure out what to do in a situation or how to feel about it, having the context for your decision that comes from your explanation helps them modify their response accordingly. An understanding for behavior makes for better role modeling.

“Based on your feedback, and the importance I put on having everyone’s input, I chose to change the time and the format of the group meetings.”
We tend to understand the need to explain our actions when they will be met with opposition, but we also have much to gain by explaining our thoughts even when they don’t have a potential negative impact.  Even for well-received behaviors, an explanation makes it clearer why we took a particular action, and it further builds credibility. We might assume the action will express what’s important to you, but why not just say it?

The challenge is usually knowing for ourselves why we do the things we do. This is what we call mindfulness. Mindfulness is taking a moment to ask yourself why you do what you do–and requiring an answer. Explaining our actions to ourselves has the same impact on us as explaining our actions to someone else has on them. A mindful approach will challenge us on those behaviors that at some level we know are not consistent with our own values or philosophy, and it will promote those behaviors that are aligned with our values and philosophy. Once we can explain it to ourselves, we then have the vocabulary to explain it to others.

When it comes to influencing others’ behaviors we can express our philosophy, values and expectations through our actions alone, but articulating the reason behind those actions builds trust and teaches the lessons you are trying to impart much more quickly.