Do As I Do: Social Learning Theory & Leading By Example


Do As I Do: Bandura’s Legacy
Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless errors.
Albert Bandura

One evening, back when I was in high school, my father and I sat on the porch of our farm house talking. I remember his words distinctly. He told me that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with our farm truck, and that he had driven it to town and back and taken it to speeds as high as 90mph on the way home. He indicated that he thought it just needed to “get the cobwebs out”. Then he turned toward me with a concerned expression on his face and said “now Dean, remember, do as I say, not as I do”.

You can imagine the mixed message that this sends to a young man in the formative years of his driving experience. Fortunately, though I have broken plenty of traffic laws in my time, I did not feel compelled to race to school the next day. But such mixed messages are all around us. The work setting is certainly no exception to this. In fact, there is a great deal of research that centers on the necessity for leaders to act in “exemplary” ways toward their subordinates. For a manager, exemplary behaviors are often things like working long hours, completing high quality work, acting with integrity and recognizing the work of others. In other words, exemplars, in their perfect form, are the ideal managers. The goal of exemplification is to be seen by others as morally worthy of your position and status within the organization.

It is true that each employee may have different somewhat ideas of how the ideal manager should behave. This ideal may vary by the leaders rank and/or tenure within the organization, the size of the organization, structure of the industry etc. However, employees within the same organization generally concurrence as to what behaviors a given leader/manager ought to display.

In a study that I conducted with my mentor Bill Gardner entitled “The Impression Management Strategies Associated with Transformational Leadership at the World-Class Level: A Psychohistorical Assessment”, Management Communication Quarterly, v12 n1 p3-41 Aug 1998, we found that one critical element of most world class leaders is their ability to “walk the talk”. Even in the case of such dreadful leadership examples as Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, most people perceived his leadership effectiveness (at least in part) to his ability to demonstrate his complete commitment to and compliance with the values and ideals that he so enthusiastically proclaimed. Leaders must understand that people look to successful others as models for their own behavior. Saying, as my beloved father did on that hot summer night, “do as I say, not as I do” is not an option.

Let’s take a look at what the research on social learning teaching us. Albert Bandura is a Canadian born Stanford professor of psychology. He is best known for his work in the field of learning theory. Of all of his work in the field, perhaps his best known experiments involved what he called a bobo doll. The bobo doll is an inflatable, egg-shaped balloon, painted as a clown, with a weight in the bottom such that when you knock him down, he wobbles around a bit and stands back up. Such toys are common in today’s market, but often have faces of modern action heroes or villains.  The children very much enjoyed watching the violent act and, when presented with a bobo doll at recess, imitated the ladies behavior by hitting, kicking and shouting aggressively at the doll. Bandura went on with his theory development and identified three steps that are involved in this modeling process: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. These are interesting findings and some of you may want to read more about Barndura’s work in this area. However, given the scope of this article, I’d like to stay focused on the practical implications of this type of learning.


Though the findings of this study should not surprise anyone, they do demonstrate that people engage in modeling the behavior of others when they perceive that doing so will lead to a reward. Bandura conducted a large number of variations of the study which even included replacing the bobo doll with a live clown. The results of these studies were consistent with this social learning theory and indicated that people do learn by watching others and that they do mimic these behaviors when they perceive that doing so will be rewarding to them.

And they are not wrong in that. It IS common knowledge that hot objects burn skin and it IS sensible that a burner is hot, hence this behavior would lead to a burn and all burns hurt. However, they are missing the point.   Much of what we call common sense is learned through our environment. We watch what works and what does not work and we alter our behavior in anticipation of receiving the greatest rewards and avoiding the greatest pains. Our social models are such a strong influence in our lives that we often disregard what we are told in favor of what we have witnessed. When people say “the proof is in the pudding”, they often mean, I’ll believe it when I see it. And this is the reality that we live with every day.

As a manager or leader, high school teacher, soccer coach, parent or preacher, our ability to provide a motivational model for others is limited by our ability to display our own character, morals and work ethic. We are, in a way, like a parent is to a child. All too often setting an example that we do not wish our children to mimic. Years ago asked my then 9 year old son where he had learned a bad behavior. He spoke up without hesitation saying “you dad”. I lost my breath as I realized that he was right. I needed to DO what I wanted my children to DO, not SAY what I wanted them to DO. Social learning theory points out to us that actions really do speak louder than words.

Some leaders have made a major success of their ability to be seen by their employees as exemplars. I have personally known many people who I consider to be rather ideal models for the positions that they hold in organizations, at home and from the pulpit. These people are generally regarded as having a high degree of integrity in our society because their deeds are consistent with their words. They also tend to be the type of individual that does not ask others to do work that they have not done before or that they would not be willing to do themselves if they had the skills and talents to do it. They are generally respected by their peers and by their colleagues for their ability to consistently demonstrate that they are living the life of values that they claim are important for the organization.

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