Leadership Thought 17“Walk the talk” is one of the most used clichés on leadership. And the importance of role modeling is undoubted. Transformational leadership theorists [i] call it ‘idealized influence’ and it is a core element in all positive leadership theories [ii]: giving the example is an effective way to influence people in the right direction. As Cialdini [iii] quotes Cavett Robert in his book: “Since 95 % of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”

It’s not only being the example that creates good followership, but the consistency of it. Social psychology learns us that people like consistency. We like it for ourselves, and we like it in others. Consistency makes things easier and predictable. We choose one time, and then we stick to our choice. To products, suppliers, shops and beliefs. But also to people. We even construct our reality to reinforce our choices. We neglect negative evidence and look for extra proof.

At the same time we know that people have limited self-knowledge. We are not good at describing ourselves and our behavior correctly. Psychology and recent neurological insights learn us the limits of human rationality [iv]. We behave largely through unconscious or pre-conscious dynamics. We act more than we think out of short-term interests and own profit. At the same time is our rationality inclined to give our behaviour a ‘politically correct’ spin. David De Cremer beautifully shows this in his book ‘when good people do bad things’[v].

That’s why ‘talking the walk’ is a more realistic and convincing way of role modeling. Leadership initiates and understands that people follow actions, not words. It also understands the limits of rationality and self-awareness, and is therefore attentive to ‘talking’ before ‘walking’. Frank Van Massenhove acknowledges this in his leadership: “Because we are not rational creatures, you can not plan precisely how things will go. Not everything can be premeditated.”

[i] BASS, B. & RIGGIO, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 282 p.
[ii] AVOLIO, B. & GARDNER, W.L. (2006). Authentic leadership development: getting to the roots of positive forms of leadership. The leadership Quarterly, 16, p. 315-338.
[iii] CIALDINI, Robert (2007). The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins publishers,  p. 118.
[iv] For good introductions on recent neurological insights and the consequence for our mental model of rationality:
- KLEIN, S. (2005). De geluksformule. Amsterdam: Ambo, 313 p.
- FRANK, L. (2010). De vijfde revolutie. Amsterdam: Maven Publishing, 348 p.
- DIJKSTERHUIS, A. (2009). Het slimme onbewuste. Denken met gevoel. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 239p.
[v] DE CREMER, D. (2010). Als goede mensen slechte dingen doen. Leuven: Acco, 86 p.

Share on: