First Thoughts on Leadership

Being a leader is a lot like riding a bike… Wait, what? Image

I attended a meeting this week for Healthy Roanoke Valley, a community coalition working to address health and wellness in the Roanoke Valley. There has been a great deal of planning and exploration in this group over the past year, but during this particular meeting, the Wellness Action group broke out into a smaller discussion with the aim of identifying concrete next steps.

In our search for tangible ways to get people moving more and eating better, a representative from Ride Solutions was questioned about what he thought might encourage more people to engage in active transportation, such as walking and biking, especially to work. He noted that employers often come to him and want to know how to encourage their employees to become more active. Should they install bike racks in the parking lot? Implement an internal marketing campaign? Offer incentives? But he said that none of these things were as important as what he recommends – “If you, as their boss, want your employees to bike to work, YOU need to bike to work.”

The notion of leading by example isn’t a new one. You can probably think of a number of common everyday examples when this might happen, such as a parent opting for a healthier food choice when eating in front of their child or a teacher saying “please” and “thank you” when working with his or her students. In both cases, the parent and teacher are using example to act as a leader to their followers, hoping that by exhibiting the desirable actions, the followers will immolate these behaviors.

In Jackson & Perry‘s exploration of why studying leadership is important, the authors reference a quote from a leading leadership scholar, James McGregor Burns, who says:

” The key distinctive role of leadership at the outset is that leaders take the initiative. They address their creative insights to potential followers, seize their attention, spark further interaction. The first act is decisive because it breaks up the static situation and establishes a relationship. It is, in every sense, a creative act.”

Just as was suggested in my meeting, the leader needs to take the first step.

I wanted to learn more about how this type of leadership might be exhibited in other areas of health promotion and I found another great example – Walk With A Doc – a program meant to encourage patient walking groups with doctors. As doctors are often community leaders, these group offer an opportunity for doctors to lead by example, instead of merely directing patients to be more active.

Health can be a deeply sensitive and personal issue. People may feel shame over their struggles with weight or have fear of illnesses experienced in their families. In such cases, it strikes me how important the correct approach to leadership needs to be. I imagine employees or patients would react quite poorly to a directive from their employer or doctor to change their habits and behaviors, only enhancing fear, stress, and shame for the followers, especially when they see that the leader isn’t trying to achieve those goals in their own life. Leading by example, however, seems a far more approachable way to tackle health challenges and create positive and sustainable changes.

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