Over the past twenty-nine years, I’ve been an intentional observer, writer and speaker regarding leadership. The journey has taken me to large and small places, large and small personalities, and large and small thinkers.
Along the way I’ve encountered big voices requiring cotton-stuffed ears to get through the exchange and quiet voices requiring a lean-in posture to capture every word whispered as if each was a golden nugget of inestimable worth.
I’ve discovered and confirmed innumerable times that authentic leadership begins and ends with values-values considered, values articulated, values actioned. For the record, let’s define values for the common exchange.
Values are those things we hold precious, those things we guard. Values are where we run to when trouble occurs. Values are what we keep with us through life and living; they’re what we cling to when life’s journey draws to a close. In summary, values are what we live for and what we will die for.
Given this definition, much of what we see in listings of “corporate values” don’t comply accordingly. Most of what organizations list as values are really hoped-for aspirations, the ambitions of behavior and achievement that organizations stretch toward.
When we consider a typical list of values taken from a random list of websites, we encounter the following sample:
Honestly, are any of these what you would hold precious, run to when the crap hits the fan, live for, and will die for? As noted earlier, these are the aspirations that we hope mark our organizations as meaningful, but these themes don’t qualify as core values.
The collective personal values of an organization’s leadership define the values of the organization. And it’s to this value-set that employees, partners, and clients are either attracted to or repelled from. Therefore, special attention and care ought to be taken to understand the values of leadership. When leaders can identify, articulate, coalesce and speak out of their values, the organization then responds in like manner. A values-led organization coalesces around the values and operates under the security of a values-centric culture.
Leadership values that are identified and committed to and then are betrayed results in disillusionment, organizational confusion, and ultimately, cultural cancer unless direct action is taken to address the betrayal. Far too often we see misalignment with what leaders say about their values and how they act. Yet we also witness corrective inaction more frequently than not. It seems that peer leaders and boards are hesitant to take corrective action that could redeem the offender as well as further reinforce the organization’s value-set.
For years, the senior-most leadership of ”ACME AEC” (a possibly fake firm for example’s sake) spoke openly about the firm’s commitment to honesty, integrity, and relationship. Every large group gathering of the firm included a “Values Focus Moment” highlighting some positive example of a leader or employee expressing one or more of the values. For example, Maryanne was highlighted for reconciling an aberrant payable and returning over ten thousand dollars in overpayments to a client. This was a clear example of the honesty-integrity-relationship value-set in action.
When we encountered this organization the first few times, all seemed positive and culturally cohesive. Yet the more time spent with managers and employees, the more we discovered what we came to call “advanced cultural cancer:’ You see, the spoken value-set of leadership was radically unreconciled with their actioned value-set. “Say one thing, do another” was the whispered sarcasm among employees regarding leadership.
Our drill-down time with the leaders of the firm revealed gaping divides between each of them. Some openly lied about others in their absence. Others passive-aggressively operated under the “Go Along to Get Along” modus. Open discussion regarding trust, or the absence thereof, was foreign to this team and so mistrust framed their interaction. None of this behavior spoke to honesty, integrity, or relationship to one another. Yet all of this behavior spoke mistrust, unreliability, and hypocrisy to the employees.
A transition of leadership occurred in the past few years at ACME AEC. I was brought in as an outside advisor to the process. When asked about the best approach, I suggested we start with values. After some obvious discomfort in the room, we were able to address a framework for getting to authentic values followed and supported by relationship accountability.
The overall organization was delighted by the process. Most celebrated was the new leadership’s commitment to transparency, communication, and accountability. I’d like to say they all go this well … they don’t.
Many are so deeply set in a paradigm of misaligned values behavior that it’s the norm, the strangely comfortable operating posture of leadership. People can grow comfortable, in a functional sense, with pain and dysfunction and consider it normal. The idea of confronting it as unacceptable and then working through to a healthy normal is seemingly not doable, too large a challenge to encounter, or just not worth the effort. As one leader told me last year, “Dave, just let sleeping dogs lie.”
Authentic leadership begins and sustains with articulated, lived values. Leaders of sustainable consequence will commit to the journey and hold both themselves, their teams, and their organizations accountable to saying what is meaningful and living meaningfully.
Editor’s Note: This is part 1 in a multi-part series.
Dave Gilmore is the president & CEO of Designlntelligence.