Leadership is a big issue these days, lots of books and articles being written to help us all be better leaders. But in my reading and experience, all those ideas fall short of one simple question, do you lead by example or by exception?
First there is example. If you are leading by example, you are doing everything you are asking those around you to do, and likely you are doing it first. When you say cell phones are only for emergencies on a mission trip, you aren’t pulling yours out every five minutes to look at Facebook. When you are doing the 30 Hour Famine, you are starving right along with your students instead of sneaking snacks with the other adult volunteers.
Then there is exception. This thinking means that the rules are for you, but not for me. When we go to this conference, I want everyone to sit and listen, but I can talk to the person next to me. When I say everyone needs to be up at 6am, you all have to get up, but I will get a few more minutes sleep.
The problem with leading by exception is it causes grumbling. Why don’t you have to do what you’re asking me to? And although there may be legitimate reasons as to why you are the exception to the rule, everyone around you doesn’t know those reasons, they only know they have to do something you don’t (or you get to do something they don’t).
Leading by example is the opposite. It inspires. If you can do it, I can do it. If it is important enough for you to do this task, then I should do this task. If you need to follow this rule as the leader, then I probably need to follow it too.
When in doubt, think of Jesus. He could have been the exception to the rules. What if instead of being sinless, Jesus lived a completely sinful life but explained that He was above the rules as the creator of them? What if instead of walking everywhere He used His God-powers and transported Himself to the next town, waiting in comfort while the disciples walked through the desert? No, Jesus chose to lead by example, it makes a bigger impact, and we should do the same.