Our Values: The Foundation of Great Leadership

POSTED: Dec. 09, 2016

Core Values SignWhat is it about someone that makes them a great leader? Is it their status, outgoing personality, likeability, relatability, vision, ability to create a great strategy and execute it? I’ve always been interested in the subject of leadership and what makes some people so good at it, while others (despite all the classes they take, books they read or coaching they receive) are not. As an avid reader on the topic and observer of others, I find that the foundation of great leadership is self-awareness. 

The idea of self-awareness is broad and complex. There are many areas for leaders to be aware of; their strengths and weaknesses, their personal triggers, the way they typically respond to others, their preferred method of communication, how they handle stress and conflict, and the list goes on. But I find that one of the most important and foundational areas leaders need to be aware of is their personal values and how those values impact their daily lives, and therefore how they lead others.

Emerson once said, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears, I cannot hear what you say.” 

So why is the knowledge of our personal values key to being a great leader? The answer to this is because values drive behavior. Here’s how it works, our personal values (our beliefs about what is most important to us) impact our thinking, which ultimately impact our behavior. Our behavior is the ultimate expression of what we value. For example, if I value personal health and wellness, then making healthy food choices, getting the proper amount of sleep and exercising are the behaviors that demonstrate I value personal health and wellness. Here is another example, if I value personal development and education, attending classes and seminars, reading books and being open to hearing others’ opinions would be the behaviors that I would demonstrate. If I say I value an idea, then my behaviors better back it up. Oftentimes what leaders say, and what they do, aren’t congruent. If that happens, people assume they are untrustworthy and therefore will not follow them. 

The first step in knowing what we value is to try and clarify what those values may be. Remember that our values drive our behavior and guide the choices we make in our daily life. The book “Becoming a Resonant Leader: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationships, Sustain Your Effectiveness” by Mckee, Boyatzis and Johnston (2008) has an excellent values exercise. The following is adapted from that exercise.

1) Take a look at the following list of values and identify your top 10. Try not to over analyze. Go with your gut reaction. Also, identify what values are most important to you and not what you think your values SHOULD be.

  • Accountability
  • Achievement 
  • Adventure
  • Analytical
  • Autonomy
  • Belonging 
  • Caring
  • Cheerful
  • Citizenship
  • Clean  
  • Compassion
  • Competitive
  • Controlled
  • Courageous 
  • Creativity
  • Dependable
  • Discipline
  • Economic security
  • Expression
  • Fairness
  • Family
  • Forgiveness
  • Freedom
  • Friendship
  • Fun
  • Gratitude
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Helpful
  • Honesty
  • Hope
  • Humor
  • Independence
  • Innovative
  • Integrity
  • Intellectual
  • Joy
  • Kindness
  • Leisure
  • Love
  • Nature
  • Open-minded
  • Order
  • Persistence
  • Personal Development
  • Pride
  • Religion
  • Respectful
  • Responsible 
  • Risk taking
  • Spirituality
  • Success
  • Teamwork
  • Tidy
  • Winning
  • Wisdom
  • Others not listed?

2)    Now identify your top five and rank them in order, one being the most important.

3)    Once you have ranked your top five, now take some time to think about how you demonstrate these values in your daily life both at work and home. This is a great way to begin noticing how your values guide your choices, behavior and your life.

Once we have gained this piece of self-awareness, it’s time to explore how these values impact us as leaders, and in turn, impact those that we lead. First of all, our personal values drive the expectations of those around us both at home and work. If we are in a leadership position, our values, whether we recognize it or not, are setting the expectations of those we lead. For example, let’s say I value personal development; I am going to expect my employees to do that as well. I may encourage my employees to attend seminars or professional meetings. I may recommend and encourage employees to read books that I find interesting. I may also spend time hearing others’ opinions and perspectives. I may even be unknowingly evaluating my employees on their effort in personal development throughout the year and judge them according to my personal values. 

Here is another example, Let’s say your boss values success and status. Someone like this may put undue pressure on his subordinates to achieve and perform. If they fall short, or make a mistake, he may be very harsh in his critique of their work. He may expect employees to sacrifice their personal lives for the success of his department or the organization. 

As leaders, it is imperative for us to share our personal values and expectations with our subordinates. If not, they are playing a game that they can never win because they don’t know the rules. If we value accountability, we need to tell them what we expect from them in this regard and ALSO what they will expect to see from us. If we value family, let them know our thoughts on work/life balance and our personal policy on achieving it. If we value a sense of belonging, tell them our expectations around their commitment to the team, working together and what we will be doing as their leaders.

Walk the Talk – Not only do we need to communicate our values and our expectations around those values, but we also need to walk the talk. If we value respect and expect it from our subordinates, we better be the role model for giving respect. If we value honesty, all of our communications must be transparent and honest. If we value fairness, our employees will be expecting to be treated fairly and equitably. The true test of a great leader is someone who knows their values, explains their expectations and lives out their values on a daily basis. 

The Calendar Test – Now that we’ve identified our values, does our daily life reflect them? What we truly value is where we spend our time and money. So spend the week actually keeping track of what you do and how long you do it. Did you say you value family? Does the time you spend with them reflect that? Do you say you value health? How much of your daily activities revolve around healthy habits? This exercise can be amazingly eye opening and may show you areas where you should be walking the talk more often. 

Employee Values – Every individual brings his or her own unique set of circumstances, experiences, backgrounds and personal values to his or her organization. Another indication of great leaders is to have an honest one-on-one conversation with the people that we supervise to understand where they are coming from. Questions like:

1)    Where do you see yourself in five years?
2)    What are the most important traits you value in yourself?
3)    What qualities do you need in a boss?
4)    What brings you the most joy at work?

These are all great questions to open up the conversation in uncovering personal values.

Organizational Values – These are also tremendously important in determining a workplace culture. A set of core organizational values can establish a set of workplace norms and practices, set aspirational goals for people, describe how people should behave, describe to customers what they can expect, guide daily decision-making of employees and define the culture. They should also be the basis for key processes like hiring, staffing, communication and evaluation. Establishing not only a core set of company values, but also guidelines as to what specific behaviors demonstrate these values, is a crucial piece of organizational and leadership effectiveness that is sometimes missed. 

If an organization is struggling, looking at how employees behave and treat each other (and the customers) is the best starting point in diagnosing and also fixing the problem. However, it is certainly not the easiest. Setting new standards, new modes of operation and creating rewards and consequences for EVERYONE, including top levels of leadership, are key. 

Clarifying, living and communicating our personal values as leaders is the building block to great leadership. Knowing and understanding our employees’ values helps to build relationships and inspire followership as well. Consistently evaluating how the organization demonstrates its values by looking at how we operate together, keeps us accountable and on the right track for success.