Leadership by Example

Leadership training usually does not work. It seems that leadership coaching and mentoring is not that effective either.

In a survey of 200 CIOs, only one leadership-development technique–mentoring or coaching–was rated as highly successful or successful by at least 50 percent of respondents. All others were rated as not successful or only somewhat successful by most respondents. Even mentoring and coaching was rated highly successful by only 14 percent of the CIOs.

MBA-like executive education classes were rated the least effective development technique. “Sending your employees off to a course and expecting them to be an expert and apply the lessons is not as valuable as taking your own time to mentor and grow someone,” says Paul Brady, CIO of Arbella Insurance Group. “It’s not easy–hence the desire to ship employees off to an executive course.” – Brenda McGowan, in Network World

Perhaps the problem is the nature of leadership. Is it a skill that can be fairly quickly developed, or rather a craft that takes time to develop? When it comes to crafts, that require much time and practice, modelling may be a better method than shaping. So what exactly is modelling? Here are two examples.

Dr. Clare Brant was the first Aboriginal psychiatrist in Canada and a professor of Psychiatry at University of Western Ontario. In 1982 he presented Mi’kmaq Ethics & Principles, which included an examination of the differences in teaching between native and non-native cultures.

Now the Teaching; Shaping Vs. Modelling

“This is a more technical kind of thing. The white people use this method of teaching their children – it’s called ‘shaping’. Whereas the Indians use ‘modelling’. Shaping is B.F. Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning”, if you want to look into that one. Say a white person is teaching a white kid how to dress – he uses the shaping method, one way being ‘rewarding successive approximations’ of the behaviour he wants. Some are really complicated; for instance, if a white woman wants to teach her kid how to dress, she puts his sock on halfway and encourages him to pull it up, finishes dressing him and says he’s a good boy having done that much. The next day he learns to pull the whole sock on, then the other sock. Now that process takes about six weeks. But the white mother who does not have all that much to do can take that time to do that sort of thing every morning to teach her kid how to dress. So in this group that we ran, with these young Native people in London, we started to sniff this out, and there is nothing random about this, as a matter of fact. I asked Mary, a Native person, how she taught her kid to dress and she said, ‘I didn’t, he just did it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ It came to me that she did it until he was four or five years old, and then one day when the kid felt competent, he took over and did it himself. He did it then ever after, unless he was sick or regressed in some way.”


“Then we asked Josh, a renowned hunter, how his father taught him to hunt. He said, ‘He didn’t teach me.’ Well, that’s ridiculous, everybody has to be taught everything. We are not born with this information. But Josh went on the hunting party and carried ever more of the packs on his back, and stood behind them and held a .22. One day when he was about 14 years, he got into a canoe, and a loaded gun was where he usually sat. He knew at that point it was his turn to make the kill, that this was ‘the day’ that he was to become a man. He was enormously frightened but did make the kill correctly, appropriately through the process of ‘modelling’. Now Mary modelled how to dress for years. Then one day the kid took over and did it when he felt confident. The people and father in the hunting modelled hunting behaviour, and then suddenly, ‘Okay, you’re ready to do it, and you can do it forever’.”

Shaping can work when the task to be done is straight-forward, time is of the essence, and the learner is ready.  In the cases above, time was needed. For complex behaviours like leadership, consisting of several skills, modelling may be best, as there is much implicit knowledge to be learned, which takes time. Education and training usually don’t provide the time for enough reflective practice. As long-time painter Stephen Scott has noted, most of what he knows about the technique of oil painting he learned on his own after leaving the university. Management and leadership are similar types of abilities.

Education and training are shaping technologies. They reward successive approximations of the desired behaviour. Modelling, on the other hand, is the foundation of social learning:

“Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling. The theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.”

If we look at how organizational training & development has functioned over the past half century, it has been mostly separate from the work being done and focused on shaping behaviours. But the valued work in the enterprise is shifting, as it increases in variety and decreases in standardization. There is strong evidence that we need to integrate learning into our work in order to deal with the increasing complexity of knowledge work. Modelling is integrative, while shaping is usually external and out of the work context.

Consider also that as knowledge expands and new information is constantly added, who has the base knowledge to do the ‘shaping’ anyway? In our networked world, modelling behaviours may be a better strategy than shaping on any pre-defined curriculum. As can be seen by Dr. Brant’s second example, with modelling, the learner is progressively supported. In connected leadership, people can be both teachers and learners. Therefore neither training programs, nor coaching are enough. Leadership by example becomes the key.

5 Responses to “Leadership by Example”

  1. Ken Otter

    Nice post. I would agree that modeling is definitely the most potent way to learn leadership. Most people seem to acquire their leadership competency, not from programs, training or coaching, but from incorporating what is in their social environment–individually and culturally. Unfortunately, much of what is being modeled is ineffective or unskillful or both. This is especially true when the leadership that is being modeled is no longer relevant (hierarchically and individually oriented) in today’s interdependent and networked world.

    So for me the value in leadership learning processes whether immersive such as a program or seminar, or in-the-midst-of–action, such as coaching is that it can help unlearn tacitly held practice and open a space for new learning. And if there is a person or setting, in which relevant, effective and skillful leadership is in play, then modeling does indeed work best. If that is not available, then intentional reflective action oriented learning in a community of practitioners, is needed.

    In my professional life, I have ofund

    • Harold

      Thanks, Ken; these are good points – “reflective action oriented learning” is definitely a key part of this.

  2. Paul Simkins

    I think there are a few reasons for the poor perception of the leadership development solutions.

    One is that most companies have the wrong definition of what leadership is. If you equate leadership with management and what you call a leadership course is actually management training, then you have taught process and not people.

    Another is that what many organizations look for is the quick fix. As was pointed out, it’s not something where you attend a class and now you are great leader or read a book or see a coach a couple of times. Becoming an excellent leader is, as you mentioned, a shaping that occurs over time.

    Still another is that we tell someone, you need to be a better leader so we are going to put you in this program. External motivation like that will not yield the results we desire. For a leader to truly develop, we have to create the environment where they will find motivation within; because at the heart of it if they are not motivated they will not push themselves into areas of discomfort. If they won’t push themselves, they won’t grow and all will be for naught.

    Good, thoughtful article.

  3. Colin Lamb

    I agree wholeheartedly with the content of this article and subsequent comments below however have a concern for the current level of leadership expertise and ability from current ‘leaders’ for the less inexperienced staff to be modelled/ learn from. I believe that there is a duty of responsibility from senior managers to totally engage with the learning and development of their staff and review succession planning by reviewing competencies as well as knowledge and skills regularly. This way they can focus on skills gaps and ensure that managers become better leaders through increasing knowledge, dealing with situations and increasing experience.

    You could compare this to a matriarch elephant, albeit she is normally the eldest, who becomes the leader of the herd due to her wealth of knowledge and experience in her lifetime and from modelling her behaviour over the years each elephant in turn learns the same routes, knows how to handle difficult situations and survive and ultimately become leaders in their own right. I am not saying that a great leader needs to be of an older generation but as senior positions are being filled progressively by a younger generation they do not have the same life or work experience for others to follow leaving a gap in leadership capability and incorrect modelling.

    I feel that blended training solutions help and would not write off Leadership Training on the basis of it being the part of the knowledge or background behind best leadership or management practices. The difficulty with this type of training is the post re-enforcement or generally lack of which happens after the classroom. This should be accompanied with personal development plans, coaching on shift and regular feedback and performance reviews. I would also suggest that the integration of several measurement systems such as 360 degree feedback and also looking to simulate difficult situations under training supervision to allow those the opportunity to put into practice what they have learned but also getting feedback afterwards would also help bridge these gaps.

    Having managers self assess their current skills and also post assess situations allows them also as mentioned in the comments above to become more self motivated as opposed to extrinsically motivated having a longer term effect on performance.

    Very interesting reading.


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