Lead by Example

Most people in Western society have heard the word “sensei,” after all; the word appears in such philosophical masterworks as Kung Fu Panda and The Karate Kid. Do you know what the word actually means?


When I ask for a definition of sensei most people say it means teacher. In Japan it is used as an honorific title for teachers, but also for doctors, lawyers, leaders and sometimes parents. Literally, sensei means “born before.” Martial artists commonly translate the term as “one who went before.”

When you use the word sensei you’re acknowledging that a person has some knowledge or experience that he or she is willing to share. Now wouldn’t it be nice if we all accept the title of sensei when it comes to sharing knowledge, experience and wisdom with others?

Leadership should not be the sole domain of those who hold institutional titles or offices. Leadership by example can and should be part of an organization’s culture at every level and every rank. Leadership by example is a powerful peer to peer experience that expands the capability and power of every individual in the organization.

Be Sensei when you help a new hire learn the ropes. Be Sensei when you help your child with homework. Be Sensei when you volunteer to serve on the board of a local charity or when you volunteer to bake for the school fundraiser.

“…Human beings are interconnected beings. The ultimate expression of sharing is leadership; not in the sense of dominance or control, but in the sense of expanding one’s presence in the world through teaching and living as an example for others…the essential characteristics of effective leadership (are): Courage, Compassion and Wisdom.” From Think Like a Black Belt.

Leadership is an act of sharing. When you’re the “one who went before” you have the opportunity to share your unique experience, knowledge and perspective whether you’re looking across the front lines, over the counter or from the corner office. You expand your effectiveness by sharing power, authority and credit! The one thing you want to keep for yourself is personal responsibility!

It isn’t about dominance or control. When a new Sensei is training to take over classes or open a new center I share my experience as a seasoned Sensei; and I offer an alternative definition. I tell the new recruits that sensei really means “janitor!” After all, someone has to mop the floors and clean the bathrooms! When you “lead by example” you’ve got to be willing to walk the walk. You won’t inspire others to follow unless you’re sincerely willing to lead from the front. The best leaders are always those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and stand shoulder to shoulder with the troops.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you have some area of life where you “went before” others. Share that and you’re taking powerful steps toward authentic leadership.

“A General Officer who will invariably assume the responsibility for failure, whether he deserves it or not, and invariably give the credit for success to others, whether they deserve it or not, will achieve outstanding success.” General George S. Patton from “Patton on Leadership” by Alan Axelrod.

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