How to stay true to your values as a leader

“We need leaders to be more than just figureheads and fall guys…leadership is not a thing but a process – as we have defined it – to coordinate and direct.” – Nigel Nicolson, The “I” of Leadership

Leadership is a process of making decisions that affect other people. Our personal decision-making informs how our team makes decisions, which determines what our organisation becomes. Whether it becomes anything worthwhile will depend on what values we set out with and whether we stayed true to those same principles.

Values that work

“…it is no great feat to write down a list of values. It’s far harder to live by them, especially when they are not self-evidently aligned.” – John Pepper, What Really Matters

The most important thing a leader can do is discover and stick to one or two values that define who they are and that give their organisation a genuine advantage over their competitors. But sometimes our values can seem more like ideals that don’t necessarily affect our decisions in the moment.

The trap many fall into is to have a long list of unranked values – many of them competing – that offer no clear guidance in the murky waters of day-to-day decision making. Another is to have values that are removed from the realities of business and can be impossible to stay true to when shareholders ask us to justify our decisions.

The role of stories

“An important foundation of leadership is for leaders to settle on their own story.” – Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership

Stephen Denning argues that leaders need to focus on their story until “it becomes part of them, their very identity” so that under pressure they can recall that story as a powerful reminder of what matters to them. When we don’t have a story to back up our values they can become paper-thin mantras to us, platitudes that burn up in the fires of opposition and crisis. The process of leadership constantly throws up the question, “Why are we doing this again?” and without a story we are without an answer.

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons describes all stories as “values in action.” You can tell what your organisation is truly prioritising by the stories that are told by leaders and between colleagues. In Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull describes how the Pixar leadership were so used to telling stories about the close relationship between failure and creativity, that when he commended the team behind Toy Story 3 for a problem-free production process they felt slighted. For many organisations sadly, it is the other way around. The stories we tell will be the real mantra that sticks.

Values over targets

“We often spend so much time coping with problems along our path that we only have a dim or even inaccurate view of what’s really important to us.” – Peter Senge

How much do our values play into what we do on a daily basis? If we feel we must fight fires before we can begin working out our values, we are living with a survival mindset. At this point we need to step back and re-evaluate ourselves. Even if we feel like we’re achieving things in this mode – hitting deadlines, fulfilling quarterly targets –  we risk none of it mattering anymore. Rarely was anything remarkable ever achieved like this.

Staying true to values keeps us purpose-driven. Having a sense of meaning behind what we do helps us to problem solve with far more energy and confidence than if we are just trying to get by. It’s far better to hit the pause button now so that we don’t hit the eject button later. If we don’t align our values through daily practice, our organisation never will.

If you have to make a choice…

“Our [organisation’s] history is a mixture of noble ideals never completely fulfilled, but always sought; and when lost track of for whatever reason, they are pursued again with renewed vigour.” – John Pepper, What Really Matters

We will never fulfil our values perfectly. Aligning with them is a process that will require ongoing introspection and outworking. If we fail to introspect, we risk becoming detached from our values and having an existential crisis. If we fail to do the outwork, we risk becoming detached from the day-to-day reality, and instead of an existential crisis we get one of duality.

While we need to focus on outworking our values on a personal level before we can begin to see them happen on a structural level, there is a limit to what we can become in an organisation that is fundamentally at odds with our values. Stephen Denning says that sometimes we need to choose between a career and being a true leader. If promotion is worth more to us than committing to our core values, we might end up with a title but little meaning behind the words. On the other hand, staying true to our values might inspire change beyond what we could have expected.

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