Making values-based leadership real

I read and hear lot of dross about values-based leadership. Is this truly useful as an approach to effective leadership or is it an optional consideration that people with special interests should consider engaging in?

One problem with the dialog about values-based leadership is that people often do not bother to articulate clearly what they mean when they bandy the term around. To some, values-based leadership may mean:

“Leadership that ensures the organization follows all pertinent laws and regulations and does not engage in bribery or other clearly unethical practices”.

To others, values-based leadership is something more akin to this:

“Leadership that springs from a deep, personal awareness of own values – values that have been declared openly and that motivate and guide all decisions and actions.”

The first of these is akin to Google’s “Don’t be evil”. The second focuses on personal awareness and on alignment. The first focuses on “compliance”. The second recognizes that leaders are very different; in similar situations, they may make very different choices. These choices will often be guided – explicitly or implicitly – by deep, personal values that are shaped by our life experience. Being aware of the values that motivate and guide our actions is powerful. For starters, it may support more consistent decision-making, and clearer communication. Over time, this may bring a deeper sense of alignment and, hence, joy. It is also likely to inspire the people you lead. Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance, says something profound: “The success of an intervention depends upon the interior state of the intervener”. There are many layers to this statement, but one important application is this: When we are leading courageously, seeking to bring forth a new order, our impact will depend on how connected with are with our anxieties, our needs, our feelings and our values … and how we choose to take this awareness into account as we speak and act. If our speech and our actions are well aligned with our values, we increase the likelihood of success. For many leaders, this consideration provides sufficient motivation to explore their own values.

When we run a values module in our leadership development programs, senior leaders typically walk away declaring that they have gained much clarity through the exercise. They understand more deeply some of the conflict they have felt within themselves. They understand, better, some of the conflicts among people in the environments they lead. They connect with surprisingly strong feelings they have experienced when someone has violated their values. They often grow their confidence when it comes to speaking up for their stance.

This enhanced clarity is valuable in the professional domain and also in the private domain. My wife and I recently did a values assessment, separately, and then compared the results. Our conversation as we explored the differences gave us deeper insight into one another. One of the productive tensions in our relationship is that we rank “Harmony” and “Integrity” differently. She values integrity, but to her, harmony is more important. I value harmony, but to me integrity is more important. It has sometimes been confusing to us that our spouse could choose a course of action that seemed to violate one of our own values. She would ‘share the truth sparingly’ (as I would put it) – focusing on harmony. I would ‘be borderline rude and simple’ (as she would put it) – focusing on integrity. Understanding that the other was acting in accordance with their hierarchy of values (not our own hierarchy), made it easier to suspend judgment and to conclude: I would certainly have made a different choice, but I understand where my spouse is coming from, and I respect the choice.

Having a structured, open discussion about values can be truly revealing in a team. It encourages self-discovery and the discovery of others. For example, in a recent leadership program I led, one participant highlighted the value of “Vulnerability” as a value. Another participant, who read this simply as “Weakness” questioned how this could possibly be a value at all. The first participant explained that to him, vulnerability was all about dropping the mask, being authentic, daring to engage fully with the people around him, having the courage to acknowledge and confront his own fears. As this participant explained, it dawned on the second one that there was an entirely different perspective that he had never taken, and that this perspective could be exciting and revealing.

In similar ways, I have found it deeply meaningful to catalyze dialogues where colleagues have come to understand that while some may be driven by values linked to the need to feel protected and loved, others may be driven by values linked to the need to strengthen their sense of self-worth. Some may be driven by values linked to a deep sense of meaning in existence; others may be driven by values linked to a burning desire to make a positive difference in the world. When we share such insights openly, we come to see our colleagues in a very different light. We might even feel touched by a greater sense of generosity and grace.

So, here is my encouragement to you: do a values assessment with your partner or your colleagues and share results with one another. Here is a good one … and it’s free:

Explore what the results mean, for you personally, and for your relationship. Whether you have done something similar before or not, I am prepared to guarantee that you will have an eye-opening conversation. Moreover, you will, very likely, deepen your relationship.

I wish you a great weekend filled with discovery and joy.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.