Are You Missing this Critical Element of Small Business Leadership?

Small business leadership and management

If we can boil down what is required to grow a small business we might get to this overarching truth: Everyone must be moving in the same direction.

Anyone with a Facebook account has seen enough videos of people trying to herd cats that they know how pointless and frustrating that is. That truth applies to any organization. You will never make progress unless you have people moving in the same direction.

When individuals start to stray off course, not only does it lessen the power of the core group through the loss of those contributing members, it also requires energy to go out and try to bring the wanderers back into the fold.

Fortunately, there is a relatively simple – and please note that I didn’t say “easy” – way to keep your team moving in the same direction. It’s called leadership and specifically it’s small business leadership through example.

Before we look at some of the practical implications and benefits of leadership by example in a small business, let me set the foundation by quoting an old adage: More is caught than taught.

I’m a huge believer in proactive and thorough training programs, but training programs are a far better tool for teaching knowledge, skills and systems than they are at passing along the DNA of attitudes and priorities, which are the critical elements of small business success.

Further, I think it’s undeniable that the growth and success of many businesses – even very large ones – can be traced back to a founder who leads by strong example. I might even point to Apple Computer. The company did very well at the beginning when founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were actively leading. When new – non-founder – leadership (John Sculley) took over, the company floundered. When Jobs was brought back, the company got back on course and now that Jobs is gone, it looks like Apple is floundering somewhat again.

I don’t think I need to say more to stress the importance of founder leadership by example, so let’s look at some specifics.

Customer service

The customer service bar is set quite high today and you must instill a customer-centric attitude into your team, from bottom to top. To do this I want to point out a very important truth that applies to you as a small business owner: Your employees are your first line of customers.

How you treat your employees should reflect how you want them to treat your customers. If you are an ogre of a boss, you can expect that attitude to filter down through the ranks. However, if you work hard to make your business the ideal environment for your team, that is the attitude that will permeate your small business and be sensed by your customers.

It’s important to remember that ultimately people do business with people, not “companies.” You will create a team of people who others want to do business with if you relate to your team like people who deserve to be understood and respected.


I was talking to a woman recently who once owned a small cleaning business. She hired relatives and had a very hard time getting them to be dependable and dedicated workers. Because they were family, they felt they could take advantage of her.

The truth is that many people today are looking for a job, but far fewer are looking for work. You need to hire wisely and then set an example that displays your dedication to the business. I recently wrote a piece about one millennial’s complaints about her boss. His lack of dedication was killing her attitude toward her position in the company.

Have you ever watched “Deadliest Catch,” the reality show about crab fishing? When fishing is lousy, the attitude of the crew is equally lousy and they start bickering with each other. But when they start catching crab, the mood gets bright and they start working together as a team. Your dedication will bring that kind of success and its “positivity” will be infectious.

Let’s break down this topic of dedication a little further. Here are some individual qualities and attitudes you can instill in your team through your daily demonstrated dedication:

  • Attention to detail,
  • Priorities,
  • Results orientation,
  • Mutual support, and others.

What I’ve written about here today might be called the “soft skills,” if we were to compare them to skills such as the number of words per minute you can type, or how quickly you can unload a truck with a fork lift. I believe it’s ultimately these soft skills that determine the success of your small business. The hard skills can be taught and improved with practice over time. However, if you, as the owner of your small business, don’t model the soft skills through your leadership, you have no right to expect your team to pick them up.