Modeling is one of the most powerful tools we have in our leadership toolbox. The idea is simple: if we want others to do something, we have to do it first . It works in parenting, it works in school, it works in leadership.

For example, if I want my kids to turn off the screens and play outside, I have to turn off the screens and play outside. If I want my team wearing their seatbelts, I have to wear my seatbelt. In our speeches and workshops, we always say that leadership is a choice, that leaders go first, and that change always starts with us. These slogans are true—others take their cues from us, and are more likely to act on the behaviors we want if we do so first.

Why does modeling work? We started learning from others as kids—we’d see our parents or siblings do something, we’d try it out, and if it got us what we wanted or needed, we adopted it. Over the course of our lives, we continued to rely on modeling to figure out how to be successful and how to fit in. It’s not always perfect—sometimes you can model a specific behavior regularly and others will ignore it, but when you call attention to an important behavior, then consistently act on that behavior, you are more likely to be successful.

How to make modeling work:

  1. Talk about the outcomes you want, and the behaviors that will get you there. For example, let’s say you want a higher performing team, and know that feedback leads to better performance. Tell your team, “I’d like us to be a higher performing team” and describe what that performance looks like (sell more, go faster, deliver higher quality, be nicer, etc.). Then describe the behavior you want—in this case, giving more feedback.
  1. Act on the behavior. In this example, it means giving more feedback in support of the outcomes you want. Be obvious about your feedback so others notice—sometimes as bluntly as saying “Hey, may I give you some feedback?”
  1. Ask others to recognize when you act on the behavior and call you out when you don’t. This will keep you accountable to the commitment you made and call attention to the behavior you want to encourage.

To keep things simple, modeling works best when you make it obvious, then act on it again and again and again. It means getting your hands dirty—which will earn you more respect from others and subtly encourage them to follow your lead.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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