A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others.
– Buddha

The CLEMMER Group did an extensive assessment with a divisional manager to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses within his division and implement a major change and improvement process. Our assessment report showed that the problems in the division’s customer service, quality, and productivity could be traced to one cause – the management team was dysfunctional. They were technicians and managers, not leaders. Their individual and collective leadership was weak. After reviewing the report with the division manager, we planned an off-site retreat with the management team to review the report and establish action plans. On the first morning of the retreat, the division manager presented everyone with a beautiful folder printed with the company logo and the words “Change Kit: Change Begins Here” on the outside. Upon opening the folder, each manager found a large mirror inside.

As a parent I am too often reminded of the old adage that says “children act like their parents – despite all attempts to teach them good manners.” When one of our kids does something I’m not especially pleased with, my first inclination is to wonder “where did you learn that?” If I reflect on it for a while, I can start to see where that behavior came from – their mother, of course!

Well, maybe not. If I am really honest and take a long look in the leadership mirror, I can see there’s no point in trying to put the blame elsewhere. But it is often tough to recognize our own behavior. It’s even tougher to admit to it. In my leadership training and coaching work with managers, I often see a variation of the old parenting adage: team members act like their leader – despite all attempts to train them otherwise.

I can’t build a team or organization different from me. I can’t change them into something I am not. That was the main theme of my third book, Pathways to Performance: A Guide to Transforming Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization. This theme came from working with so many managers who bought our training programs or hired our consultants to implement such things as customer service programs, quality improvement processes, and culture changes. Too often the characteristics or skill sets they were trying to build in their organizations weren’t being modeled by the managers. This was like a single person – someone who’s never even been able to get a second date – providing marriage counseling.

Too often we see managers with a poor service ethic who don’t serve the servers trying to improve customer service. Managers with laughable personal time-management habits try to build process-discipline into their organization. Managers with little vision or boldness want more creative thinking. Managers who spend no time on the Internet and print off their e-mails try to implement e-business strategies. Managers with sloppy work habits try to improve quality. Managers who don’t follow through and keep commitments want more accountability in their organizations. Managers who show up late for meetings (or cancel them at the last minute) want a more disciplined organization. Caustic managers sarcastically tell team members to provide more respectful customer service. Managers who make snide remarks about their peers or other groups want more teamwork. Managers blaming “them” and making excuses for their own performance want to improve morale. Management teams with slow decision making processes want to build fast, flexible, and highly responsive organizations.

The message here, of course, is that changing them won’t succeed unless it is preceded by changing me. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in this world.” It’s all too easy to come up with changes I’d like to see in others. It takes a lot more leadership courage to change me in order to change them. Strong leaders, seeing beyond their own immediate concerns, are not faint-hearted.

“It was awful,” she explained. “I was walking down Elm Street and there was a terrible accident. A man was thrown from his car and he was lying in the middle of the street. His leg was broken, his skull was fractured, and there was blood everywhere. Thank God I took that first-aid course.”

“What did you do?” he asked.

“I sat down and put my head between my knees to keep from fainting!”

We’ve all heard about the importance of leading by example. Unfortunately, this phrase has become such a worn-out clichй that it has lost its meaning. Everywhere we look today, there are examples of our failure to recognize words and actions that don’t match – like the sign on the door of a repair shop:

(Please knock hard on the door…the bell doesn’t work)

One manager hired me to speak to the organization about the work-life balance themes in Growing the Distance. This was an ongoing theme for their last few annual conferences. A participant told me later that last year’s conference required everyone to travel on the Sunday to attend the Monday morning kickoff. That Sunday was Father’s Day.