Leading by Example Isn’t Leadership? Tell Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Tim Duncan They Weren’t Leaders

By Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

There are some who claim Leading by Example isn’t legitimate leadership… They adamantly profess that only Vocal Leadership is “real” leadership.

Let’s stop and think about that for a second…

Do you honestly believe that people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Derek Jeter, Tim Duncan, Carla Overbeck, and Wayne Gretzky were not effective or successful leaders?


Clearly, they are some of the best leaders the world and sporting world have ever known!

  • Gandhi’s non-violent example inspired an entire country to rise up and fight for independence.
  • Mother Teresa’s calm compassion served thousands who lived in poverty.
  • Rosa Parks’ quiet refusal to move to the back of the bus catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Tim Duncan’s no-nonsense, low ego approach was instrumental in the San Antonio Spurs winning multiple championships.
  • Derek Jeter’s serious approach to the game earned four World Series Championships and everyone’s RE2PECT.
  • Carla Overbeck’s behind the scenes leadership was essential in helping the USA women's soccer team win the World Cup.
  • Wayne Gretzky’s quiet leadership led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups.


Just because these relatively quiet people’s actions spoke much louder than their words some would dare proclaim they aren’t legitimate leaders?!? That’s ludicrous and a slap in the face to these legendary leaders.

For those who say that Vocal Leadership is the only true form of leadership, we all know in today’s world there are numerous people who are super vocal, even boisterous, but their bluster doesn’t make them credible, respected, or effective leaders. Far from it.

If you define leadership as the ability to influence others, as I and many others do – there is no denying that Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Tim Duncan, Derek Jeter, Carla Overbeck, Wayne Gretzky, and many others had IMMENSE INFLUENCE on their teammates, countrymen, causes, etc., despite their quiet leadership. They let their actions, not their words, do the talking for them.

None of these proven LEADERS said much because they didn’t need to. Their powerful, consistent, and congruent actions inspired and influenced others. The exemplary way they led themselves and embodied their causes spoke so loudly they didn’t need to use many words. Their selfless actions, much more so than their limited words, inspired others to want to follow them and contribute to their collective causes.

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don't "Dis" Leaders by Example

Leading by Example is certainly a powerful and legitimate form of leadership and should never be denied, discounted, or disparaged. In fact, Leading by Example is where all leadership starts and gains and sustains its legitimacy.

Leading by Example is the foundation of leadership and why we put it at the core of the leadership model we use in our Leadership Academies and Captain’s Manuals. If a person can’t successfully lead him or herself, he or she will not earn the respect and credibility to lead others.

For example, one of the best Leaders by Example I ever witnessed was former North Carolina men’s basketball player Tyler Hansbrough. Tyler rarely said much but went about his work day in and day out at such a high level of intensity and focus that it inspired everyone. He brought it every single day at the highest level. His consistent Leading by Example inspired his teammates and set the standard for the work ethic, competitiveness, and focus on the team. While he didn’t say much, Tyler’s Leadership by Example and play propelled the Tar Heels to win a national championship.

Going from Good to Great with Level 5 Leaders

In fact, Stanford researcher Jim Collins found that companies that went from Good to Great had what he called Level 5 leaders, or leaders who were “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.” Collins writes, “While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Every good-to-great transition in our research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition. Furthermore, the absence of Level 5 leadership showed up as a consistent pattern in the comparison companies. Given that Level 5 leadership cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, especially the belief that we need larger-than-life saviors with big personalities to transform companies.”

Don’t discount or deny the important value of Leading by Example - and be sure to cite these many undeniable examples of leadership if others attempt to tell you otherwise.

Who Are Your Leaders by Example?

As you look at the athletes on your team, consider the following questions:

Who are the Leaders by Example in your program?

How do they influence your team?

How can you better utilize their strengths to influence your team?

How can you better appreciate what they bring to your program?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first to state that Leading by Example is not the only form of leadership. Of course we also want to develop positive Vocal Leaders for the crucial verbal influence they too bring to the team. This kind of Vocal Leadership is also valuable, comprises the second layer of leadership in our leadership model, and is a critical area we spend a great deal of time on in our work with leaders and teams. Both Leading by Example and Vocal Leadership are essential.

Never overlook, discount, or delegitimize the significance of Leading by Example, because it too has its proper place and adds significant value. We just need to remember and respect the fact that leadership doesn’t only occur when someone opens their mouth - as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Derek Jeter, Tim Duncan, Wayne Gretzky, and Carla Overbeck so definitively demonstrated.


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