A few years ago, former General Mills CEO Steve Sanger told nearly 100 of his colleagues: “As you all know, last year my team told me that I needed to do a better job of coaching my direct reports. I just reviewed my 360-degree feedback. I have been working on becoming a better coach for the past year or so. I’m still not doing quite as well as I want, but I’m getting a lot better. My coworkers have been helping me improve. Another thing that I feel good about is the fact that my scores on ‘effectively responds to feedback’ are so high this year.”

Listening to Steve speak so openly to coworkers about his efforts to develop himself as a leader, I realized how much the world of work has changed in recent years.

When I became an executive coach, few CEOs received feedback from their colleagues. Even fewer candidly discussed that feedback and their personal developmental plans with anyone. Today, many of the world’s most respected chief executives are setting a positive example by opening up, striving continually to develop themselves as leaders. In fact, organizations that do the best job of cranking out leaders today tend to have CEOs like Steve Sanger who are directly and actively involved in leadership development.

It’s true that organizations that more actively manage their talent, put lots of focus on identifying high-potential people, better differentiate compensation, serve up the right kinds of development opportunities, and closely watch turnover rank high as great organizations. Crucial to all these efforts are CEO support and involvement.

No question, one of the best ways top executives can get their leaders to improve is to work on improving themselves. Leading by example can mean a lot more than leading by public-relations hype.

Michael Dell, one of the most successful leaders in business history, for instance, has done an amazing job of sincerely discussing his personal challenges with leaders across the company. He is a living case study from whom everyone at Dell is learning. His leadership example makes it hard for any leader to act arrogant or to communicate that he or she has nothing to improve upon.

So, what’s the number one sign that someone isn’t a great leader?

Unfortunately, in the same way that CEO support and involvement can help companies nurture leaders, CEO arrogance can have the opposite effect. When your boss acts like he or she is perfect and tells everyone else they need to improve this is a sure sign that the leader isn’t great. Worse yet, this behavior can be copied at every level of management. Every level then points out how the level below it needs to change. The end result: No one gets much better.

The principle of leadership development by personal example doesn’t apply just to CEOs. It applies to all levels of management. All good leaders want their people to grow and develop on the job. Who knows? If we work hard to improve ourselves, we might even encourage the people around us to do the same thing!

Marshall Goldsmith
Author of the New York Times & Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller Triggers