Leadership Truth #1 - Great Leaders Operate from a Set of Values
What are values? Values go to the root of our existence. In our society, we don't spend enough time understanding our values and how we acquired them. Downwind leaders know their value set and also have a pretty good idea of the origin.
Our upbringing is the typical source of fundamental values. Our parents start instilling values long before we are even aware of life. Our sense of rightness is planted so deeply by the time we can speak and walk, that they are not likely to change much, even if we live to be 100. Circumstances and events later in life also have a way of shaping our values, or perhaps more accurately, how we perceive our values. Maybe an example will help to illustrate this concept.
Suppose you have a deep-seated value that you should respect the right of a person to make up his own mind without coercion. Where did that come from? It came from things you heard and experienced long before you could think clearly on your own. It most likely came from your parents, though it could have come from a sibling, a nanny, a babysitter, a Sunday school teacher, etc. Somewhere down deep inside you there is a core value. In our example, let's fast forward to an incident in the second grade. Another student brings some matches to school, and you meet up with him in the boys' bathroom. He announces his intention to set the waste barrel on fire, and you unconsciously evaluate the suggestion against your value of letting him make up his own mind without interference from you. An hour later, after the fire trucks have left and the sprinkler system has been reset, you feel a sharp pain in the seat of your pants where your father has been using his hand like a fly swatter. This very deep impression causes you to modify your value to read, "I value the ability to let people make up their own minds without coercion, as long as I perceive that their proposed action will not hurt me or others." The core value is the same, but it has been modified suitably, based on the redness of your bottom.
And so it goes in thousands of conversations and incidents throughout our life, as we tap into our values and modify them so they become more real and usable to us. Ultimately, we redefine our values on the fly to accommodate a messy world. Of course, this puts us on a slippery slope in terms of ethical behavior, and we keep on sliding until we get hurt. Often, we lose awareness of what our values have become.
Why is it so important to know one's values? Without having your values specifically enumerated - usually written down - they become a vague set of intentions or ideals. That is a weak foundation for all of your actions. Everything done in life stems back to some value statement of its worth. If something is worthless or wrong according to our values, we will not do it because there is a higher value option available. To consciously pursue a course of action that we recognize violates a core value ought to be a definition of stupidity. Let's be careful here. I am not implying all human beings who are not stupid always do what they know is right. So where is the contradiction? It is that we rationalize circumstances or conditions to bend our values accordingly, so we trick ourselves into thinking something not congruent with our beliefs is right to do.
It is critical to probe deeply into one's psyche to identify the root values and write them down. Once a leader's values are there for anyone to see, they become harder to deny. One litmus test of leadership capability ought to be whether the person can reach into his desk drawer, or computer, and produce a coherent set of personal values. If he can do it, chances are he has good leadership capability. If the list is a fragmented thought pattern that waffles with the vagaries of life, you can anticipate some issues with this leader.
But what exactly are our values now? That is where some homework needs to be done. Great leaders instinctively know this is important and just do it. Most leaders do not. In fact, that is one reason why there are so few great leaders.
Defining your own values
The exercise of defining your values is simple enough, but it does take several days to accomplish. Start by setting aside some quiet time where you can think, even meditate, without interruptions. Do a brain dump of the things you might consider as values. Don't evaluate them; just dump them out for a couple hours. You might end up with a list of 50 or so items as potential values. I recommend taking a two-day break at this point. For the next two days, put the exercise in the back of your mind, but keep a note pad handy. At odd moments in the two days, you will think of other potential value statements. Jot them down and then go about what you were doing.
After a couple days, you should have a pretty long list. Now it is time to go to work and distill your core values from it. Start by writing each potential value statement onto post-it notes. Find a wall where you can spread these notes out. Immediately cull out any duplicate items and group similar items together. Keep massaging the list, working items into discrete groupings until you are satisfied with the pattern. Then take a break for two days. During that time, you can revisit your patterns and make minor changes, even additions, as necessary to increase your comfort level that the "mind map"1 is consistent with your core beliefs.
When the grouping patterns have become stable, there should be a small number of groups, usually 4-8 groups. Now you are getting close. Focus on each group individually and try to reduce the essence into two or three words. Sometimes it will be necessary to use a sentence, but the shorter each phrase is the better. Start with the idea that you are going to put a title on each of the groupings. Then make sure the title adequately conveys the concepts on each post-it within the group.
The list of the group titles is your set of core values. This list is incredibly important as a leadership tool for the following reasons:
1. The list of your values is a great way to communicate with people in your organization. It can be used to initialize a set of items others can expect of you, but more importantly, it can give you an ability to communicate the basis of some decisions that may seem obscure to others in your group.
2. Use the list to test yourself for consistency. Often the way forward is not clear, and having your personal list of values gives you a set of precepts to test future activities. This is especially important in emergency situations or times when there is high ambiguity.
3. Use it as a basis to test the rightness of policies coming down within your organization. In any organization, your political survival rests on knowing which battles to fight. Avoid the ones where there is basic agreement on your values but some execution issues. When your values are steadfastly opposed to a proposed action, that is a good signal it is time to stand up and fight. The issue may very well be a hill worth dying on.
4. Model the behavior in your sphere of influence. If you use your values to make good judgments and say so often, other people will get the idea that you have some bedrock beliefs that are guiding your moral compass, which will increase your credibility and trust basis.
5. Use each situation as an opportunity to test the validity of your assumptions on values. There may be a rare occurrence that requires an examination of your moral compass. If you handle it well, you can use it to guide future actions by suitably modifying your values statement.
Values help leaders verify their direction is correct. It is critical for leaders to generate, internalize, communicate, and live their values. They form the bedrock on which leaders navigate and provide initial guidance in times of crisis.