It is a familiar question we have all heard, "He/she talks the talk, but does he/she walk the walk?" This question, or variations on it, have been asked of persons in leadership positions, educational venues and other places/situations where the persons in question are heard to utter bits of wisdom or proselytize about how one should act and behave in order to be successful.
However we phrase it, the common wisdom tells us that “talk is cheap,” and that action is what really tells whether a person is a true believer and a practitioner of his/her professed beliefs. I would like to explore together this rather straightforward concept to see if we can be better persons by setting examples that others will respect and follow.
How and why did it originate?
You are probably starting to think about the many phrases have been coined that express essentially the same idea – people want and need to see their leaders act the way they are asking others to act. At the risk of boring you with overused phrases, clichés if you will, here are a few examples:
• "Actions speak louder than words"
• "Practice what you preach"
• "Those that can do, those that can't teach" (Shaw)
• "Well done is better than well said" (Franklin)
and my favorite walking, talking passage from Shakespeare's Richard III:
• "Fear not, my lord, we will not stand to prate;
Talkers are no good doers; be assured
We come to use our hands and not our tongues."
We could brainstorm a long list of phrases that have the same essence. Why? Because it is such a common occurrence in human interaction. Ever since the first humans began forming communities, there has been need to qualify our leaders so we can trust them with our welfare. While we often make mistakes in whom we choose to follow short term, in the long term we only join with and trust people who prove they do what they say.
Why is it so difficult for many to do what they say?
I think a lot of the difficulty comes from the fact that no one is perfect. We all have flaws and make mistakes. Yet, there seems to be a mistaken idea that all leaders and heroes must be pure, untarnished and near perfect for us to hold them in high esteem. For many leaders in public life, in businesses and other organizations it is difficult to admit mistakes. So many make the error of covering their mistakes or lying about them, and when they are discovered as they often are, the results are far worse than admitting the mistakes when they happened. People have far more faith in leaders and heroes who show their humanness, admit their weaknesses, don't try to hide their mistakes and live the example they are professing others to follow.
Some who have showed their humanness and led by example are Gandhi, Herb Kelleher, Lt. General Hal Moore, Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi.
How can we be better walkers?
We cannot all be public figures or heroes in the sense of those listed above, but in our areas of responsibility and workplaces, we can keeping making this better. Successful leaders work toward building trust and continually creating an environment where people respect us, and what we do and stand for with our words.
Gandhi has been often quoted as stating, "Be the change you want to see in the world," which he lived for much of his adult life. Although a well-educated lawyer, he found that the best way to inspire the huge nation of India to work toward independence from Great Britain was for him to go out among the people, work at their jobs, understand them and lead by example. His non-violent, passive resistance resulted in imprisonment for him on more than one occasion. He was a philosopher who admitted his flaws and changed the fate of a nation by his words of inspiration and especially through his actions.