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Values: understanding and living them builds leadership.

by Jennifer McCoy

One of the first discussions a coach has with a leader is about values: the values he holds, the values he practises consistently at work, and how those values make a difference. Answers seldom come easily: this conversation, an essential starting point for a leader, is usually ongoing throughout their development journey.

'Values are deeply held views of what we find worthwhile'. However, 'there is a distinction between our 'espoused values' - which we profess to believe in - and our 'values in action', which actually guide our behaviour' 1. They are the foundation for our attitudes and personal preferences; crucial decisions, about life and work are made on the basis of the values we hold. Knowing the values we hold and their priority, can help us balance perspectives, make informed judgements in difficult circumstances.

For leaders, identifying their values and then living them, is critical to their success. One leadership writer argues "the purpose of leadership is to change the world around you in the name of your values, so you can live those values more fully and use them to make life better for others"2

Whether or not you accept that view of leadership entirely, our values are seldom challenged and few of us give any thought to them, even if we live by them. even less frequently do we think about how these same values we espouse might become the standard by which we lead at work, the standard by which everyone operates: ‘the way we do things around here’. Would it indeed be possible to make life better for others, if we gave consideration, and commitment, to our values at work?

Take 'ethical practice', a value that every leader would claim. We usually confront this value when faced with an obviously unethical situation: stealing, someone claiming credit for another employee's work. However, ethical behaviour also encompasses fair and just treatment of people. Yet, how many times do we allow stress and frustration to take form in unethical behaviour: curtly dismissing someone's helpful suggestion, openly expressing impatience in expression of passive aggression, ignoring signs of bullying perhaps amongst certain staff members because it's easier to avoid the issue.

The effect on staff should be obvious: they learn not to volunteer ideas, they become nervous about taking on new tasks or reporting problems, they distrust you because by condoning unethical behaviour you fail to ensure their workplace is fair, just and safe.

Out with cooperation, community, loyalty, initiative - and trust. All the positive values a leader needs in a workplace.

Where do you start as a leader? Remember, leadership is needed, and can be found at every level in an organisation. Begin at a personal level by clarifying your own values - build your understanding of your core strengths; next, become aware of what you do, how you behave, that translates the value into practice; next learn to recognise when your behaviour is inconsistent with your values and make the commitment to change.

Behaviour is largely driven by habit. Once recognised habits can be changed - with commitment and practice.

Download this Values Exercise >>>

  • Identify the values you feel most strongly about
  • What do you do, how do you behave, to demonstrate that value?
  • Consider whether your staff would be able to pick your values.
  • Watch your self at work and decide how consistent you are.

Read/Browse: 1Senge, Peter. (1995) The fifth discipline fieldbook: strategies and tools for building a learning organisation. London: Nicholas Brealey

2Slap, Stan. (2010). Revealing your moment of truth. McKinsey Quarterly, October. Read here Raffoni, Melissa. (2010) Are you an ethical leader? Blog, Harvard Business Review. Read here Moss Kanter, Rosabeth. (2010) Ten essentials for getting value from values. Blog, Harvard Business Review. Read here