Should I Lead by Example?

Should I Lead by Example?

By Frances Buontempo

Overload, 26(146):2-3, August 2018

Stuck on a problem? Frances Buontempo considers where to turn to for inspiration.

I started to clear my desk and found a cue card with the words “Lead by example” written on it, which distracted me from writing an editorial. This card is from Seb Rose’s closing keynote ‘Learning to Walk again’ at this year’s ACCU conference [ Rose18 ]. The idea was to write down something you had learnt from the conference on a card and give the card, along with contact details, to someone so they could later remind you what you wrote. I failed to comply with the instructions precisely, since I still have my own card, but it did jog my memory, though not enough to recall what had taught me this. It could have been Arne Mertz’s ‘Code review’ session [ Mertz18 ]. You cannot expect to get away with telling others how they can improve their code if you don’t follow your own suggestions. As a mentor, I encouraged new programmers to add unit tests to their code and put it all in version control, but frequently noticed I had strategic scripts with no tests at all and some not even in version control. For shame! Lead by example. Of course, it’s not just unit tests. I complain when others don’t keep a diary, but don’t always write appointments in my own diary. Far too much ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

OK, what does lead by example mean? In one sense, leading by example contrasts with trying to bully people into doing things your way. How do you persuade people to adopt your approach? I was recently asked this at an interview. If faced with a task that might take a day, and two possible implementations, it’s surely worth knocking together both alternatives rather than spending three days arguing over which is best? You do not always need to make everyone go along with one idea. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. Tempers can get frayed if people don’t see things your way, and I value working software over proving my idea is the best. A recent blog post [ DestroyAllSoftware ] broke down a response from Linus Tovarlds on union aliasing. Tovarlds’ language was inflammatory and unkind. The blog post showed an alternative way of making the same points without being so hateful. You can disagree with people without resorting to bullying by telling them they are brain-dead or worse. I can recall many time when I’ve categorically told someone they were stupid and didn’t know what they were doing. I believe I have stopped doing this now. Pull me up if you notice me being a bully. Taking the lead by bullying others into submission is not a good idea. What are the alternatives?

To encourage the adoption of a new approach to a problem, instead of arguing or laying down the law, you may be able to knock together a prototype showing the alternative works. Sometimes the better tech wins, so giving people alternatives allowing them to try out your new ideas can be more persuasive than banning older tool-chains or similar. If you want to change an API, try adding new functions and gradually deprecating the older ones as people stop using them. The strangle vine pattern or strangle applicator [Fowler04] describes ways to ensure a new approach strangles or kills off the old way, drawing an analogy with strangle vines, which grow over other plants. It contrasts with a complete re-write allowing new approaches to live side by side with old approaches, at least for a while. This probably doesn’t count as leadership per se, but does give alternative paths. More suggest by alternatives than lead by example, though it incorporates the nub of the idea: have a demonstration or example to make your point.

Any prototype is certainly an example, though whether this counts as leading is another matter. In the sense of pioneering, or going out in front, it surely does? Sometimes attempting to trail-blaze leaves you more a lone lunatic in no-mans’ land than a leader. You need a level of self-confidence to be able to demonstrate an idea or working example without wanting to hide under a blanket or behind a sofa. I hope we manage to encourage Overload writers, even if we don’t always agree with everything that gets written. That’s ok. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us. An article is often an example, sometimes a novel idea even, which can lead readers to try new things, learn or even write in to disagree. That’s ok too. However, an article as a way of leading by example is probably not what my cue card meant.

What did I mean? I am not sure. It sounds like sensible advice, but I am unclear what it really means, as is often the case with slightly trite phrases. Furthermore, it begs the question: should I lead by example? Perhaps this is straying near Betteridge’s law of headlines: ‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no’. [ Wikipedia-1 ]. When used in a headline, a question is often sensationalist, in order to drum up an audience, something I suspect my title is unlikely to achieve. One website [ BetteridgeLaw ] has examples filling over two thousand pages. I can’t vouch for the veracity of any of those, though many are hilarious. ‘Does Bill Gates still know what computer users want?’ and so on. I’ll leave you to explore.

You may not aspire to be a leader, but can find yourself out in front from time to time. I sometimes walk quicker than others, finding myself ahead when walking with friends or family to an unfamiliar location, having just said, ‘I’ll follow you.’ It is difficult to follow if you are in front. Perhaps you find yourself reluctantly in front, being the first person to try to make a new technology work, or resurrect some old code no one knows how to build. Bad luck. In that situation, you are unlikely to have examples to follow. You can make sure you put the code in version control, add some kind of tests or at least ways of spotting regressions. You can add a make file, or other build script, once you have figured out how to build the code. A short readme file is a good idea too. Even if it says little more than ‘type make then run_tests ’. In a sense, this is leading by example because you have improved the situation, just quietly in the background, without needing long meetings to decide what approaches to take. You might need these too, but at least the fundamental parts are in place and you have recorded what you spent time discovering in a simple and clear format. Perhaps that’s all I meant. Instead of moaning about the state of the world, or the project, or codebase, step up and make the changes needed. This might need to be in a non-invasive way, so people can still email themselves files, write word documents and have meetings if they want to. Meanwhile the code builds and runs. And crashes. But that’s another story.

This nuance is leading in the sense of forging ahead and getting stuff done. It’s not leadership in the sense of an authoritarian head of state or someone guiding or conducting a process, team or project. A leader can also be a front page news splash or similar. Something at the front, in your face, trying to stir up discussion. An editorial of sorts. The etymology of the ending -ship might trace to the Dutch for cut or hack [ Etymology ], I presume along the lines of essence of something rather than thrown together or a newspaper hack. Such a pen for hire is not to be confused with relatively recent phone hacking scandals by News International [ Wikipedia-2 ]. In a sense, the hack makes a path through something or in a direction. Any example gives a hint of how to do something or the direction to take. An entrepreneur or pioneer may take a lead, one dealing with the enterprisey requirements to form a business, the other possible being more like a lone ranger going off in front, perhaps a alone. Do such people lead by example? They lead. The best team leads I have ever worked with lead from behind. They were happy to take a back seat and enable the developers. The Harvard Business Review attributes this to Nelson Mandela [ Hill04 ], equating a leader with a shepherd who “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Are there leaders, whether team leads at work or from other realms, you admire? I suspect each of us can think of at least one person who seems to have a knack of getting things done in an effective manner. I have a few people I bring to mind when I get stuck on various problems. For mathematics, I often wonder what my Dad would have done. For some coding problems, I wonder what specific coders I know would do. I won’t name and embarrass anyone, but I’ve met many such people through the ACCU. The meme, ‘What would [insert name here] do?’ has run for a long time. As with many memes or inspirational sayings, the question is a cliché. Commonplace sayings become clichés because they capture a heart of a common idea or experience, which rings true for many people. They can give an accurate encapsulation of an idea, or an example to put out in front. I have caught myself a few times thinking a project is going badly wrong and rather than asking ‘What would XXX do?’ I start asking myself what do I want to do. What would I do, if I were leading this project? What would I do if this were a personal project? That’s why I have managed to sneak in a make file and a way to run some regression tests on my current project. I’m not suggesting you use me as a fine example of how to solve any problems. I am asking if you have some self-belief. If you’re suffering from a confidence nose-dive, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself what you are good at, or at least enjoy. Spending time listening to people you admire, reading what they’ve written; articles, code or blogs. Or stories. At least get to a point where you can reflect on the bigger picture and get what you think clear. That might be no more than deciding you are stuck and haven’t got a clue what to do.

If you’re not sure how to tackle a problem, do consider asking yourself what XXX would do. Not necessarily Vin Deisel. 1 Find an example to lead you through your problem. I think I have now devolved into giving myself advice or suggestions using a few suspiciously platitudinous phrases. Thanks for listening. I may have intended to lead by example, but now wonder if perhaps I should re-word my cue card to say “Hack by cliché.” Whichever you think is most appropriate, take a moment to ask yourself, what would Linus do? What would Bjarne do? What should I do? Be the person you want to be. Don’t be mean. Lead by example, or hack by cliché.



[DestroyAllSoftware] ‘A case study in not being a jerk in open source’ (2018)

[Etymology] -ship in the Online Etymology Dictionary at

[Fowler04] Martin Fowler (2004) ‘Strangler Application’, at:

[Hill04] Linda Hill (2010) ‘Leading from Behind’ in the Harvard Business Review,

[Mertz18] Arne Mertz (2018) ‘Code Reviews – Why, what and how’ (not recorded at the ACCU conference)

[Rose18] Seb Rose (2018) ‘Software development – learning to walk again’ from the ACCU18 conference, available at

[Wikipedia-1] ‘Betteridge's law of headlines’,

[Wikipedia-2] ‘News International phone hacking scandal’, at

Your Privacy

By clicking "Accept Non-Essential Cookies" you agree ACCU can store non-essential cookies on your device and disclose information in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Cookie Policy.

Current Setting: Non-Essential Cookies REJECTED

By clicking "Include Third Party Content" you agree ACCU can forward your IP address to third-party sites (such as YouTube) to enhance the information presented on this site, and that third-party sites may store cookies on your device.

Current Setting: Third Party Content EXCLUDED

Settings can be changed at any time from the Cookie Policy page.