Why Values Matter for Leaders

May 27, 2014

core values

Whether you are a front-line supervisor or C-suite executive, navigating the uncertainty of leading people in a rapidly changing world can be incredibly nerve-racking. Decisions are rarely black and white and not everyone will be happy with you all the time. That said, whether you succeed or fail as a leader is up to you. In my work with managers and executives over the years, I’ve found that the first step in becoming a successful leader at any level is being true to yourself and relying on a solid foundation of clearly articulated values.

Naturally, this begs the question: What are values?

Values are the principles and standards that guide your thinking and action. They are your basic convictions or beliefs about what is right, good, or of worth. Think of your values as that internal compass that guides you when you are unsure of where to go. Examples of commonly cited values include autonomy, affluence, family, relationships, and helping.

Strong leaders fall back on their values to guide them in making tough decisions, particularly when traveling uncharted waters. The challenge for most young leaders is actually being able to articulate their values in a meaningful way. This lack of clarity results in decisions that can be a bit erratic and may often appear to be inconsistent in the eyes of their constituents. It’s as if a magnet has been placed under their decision compass causing it to randomly spin. The unfortunate reality is most management training doesn’t touch on the concept of values. To combat this, I recommend taking the time to define your own personal set of core values and then examine the extent to which they truly align with who you are and how you make decisions.

Clarifying and articulating your values starts with reflection. Values can be shaped by any number of life experiences including upbringing, religion, culture, education. When exploring your values, it’s important to reflect how these factors have acted to influence your values and whether or not they have had too much influence. All too often we give lip service to values that were imposed on us rather than taking the time to really formulate our own.

I always recommend fleshing out your top five values and a quick web search will yield numerous lists out there that can be really helpful. When going through these lists, the simplest way to determine which values are truly a priority in your life is to ask yourself five questions:

  • Am I willing to fight for it?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice for it?
  • Am I willing to pay for it?
  • Am I willing to spend time on it?
  • Do I actually live it everyday?

If you are unwilling to step up and fight, sacrifice, pay and spend your precious time on something, you have to question whether it is truly of value to you. And of course the most important question is do you actually live the values you espouse? It’s one thing to talk about values and entirely another to put them in action. Your team members should be able to clearly see your values reflected in every decision.

In discussing the role of values in leadership, former Medtronic CEO and author of True North, Bill George, writes “the values that form the basis for your true north are derived from your beliefs and convictions.” Orienting yourself toward your true north starts with knowing the values that form the foundation of who you are. No one should tell you what your values should be, that’s up to you to decide. Just be sure you know what they are.

Photo Credit: Flickr/howardlake