Fifteen years have passed, but I (Tim) still remember the meeting as if it was yesterday. A dozen senior leaders were sitting around the conference table. I was leading them in an exercise to identify their core values. One of the executives frowned down at the materials in front of him, then caught my eye. He asked with a puzzled tone, “Do you mean my core values at work or at home?”
I nearly fell off my chair … literally. In that instant, a lot of other things made sense, such as why he struggled to perform well in his role. Why his people lacked alignment and could not function as a team. Why he was often party to politicking and infighting. You see, you can’t have two sets of core values. Your core values act as an anchor, defining who you are and why you do the things you do. If you think you can operate out of two different sets of core values, the truth is that you do not have any set of core values. You are adrift.
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner explain the nature of values in their classic work The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. When discussing “Model the Way,” the first of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, they urge leaders to “Clarify Values” because “Values are your personal bottom line. They influence every aspect of your life: for example, moral judgments, commitments to personal and organizational goals, the way you respond to others. They serve as guides to action and set the parameters for the hundreds of decisions you make every day, consciously and subconsciously.”
You can see from this definition how critical clarity is around core values and how impossible it is to hold two differing sets of core values. The greatest leaders among the 5000+ men and women it has been our privilege to engage with have been – without fail – crystal clear about what they believe and their actions consistently prove it. For instance, they hire, fire, reward, recognize, and strategize with rigorous attention to their core values.
This approach pays large dividends. Kouzes and Posner report that “leaders who were clear about their values delivered as much as five times greater returns for their organizations as did leaders of weak character.”
Such leaders “Model the Way” for their employees by their convictions, words, and actions. But, being leaders, they do more than clarify their own core values. In the words of Kouzes and Posner, they “Affirm Shared Values” with their employees. They know the importance of listening to their people and developing a set of core values for their organization that everyone can get behind. When people share a set of values, they are motivated to do their best because their performance is driven by a personal commitment.
I have seen this exciting reality displayed many times over the years, but one leader stands out in bold relief. This leader, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in his company, had an extraordinary vision for his department. To realize that vision, his people would need to operate out of a set of shared values. Accordingly, the CFO listened carefully to his people and worked with them to identify and define a set of five core values. The definitions were precise, painting a clear picture of exactly what it would look like to live these core values on a day-to-day basis. Every employee had a copy of the values on his or her desk and the values were discussed regularly at meetings to keep them front and center.
These values anchored the CFO’s organization and quickly became the hallmark of the team’s culture. To this day, each person knows that their performance will be appraised based on their alignment with the core values. And, each and every year, their division gets the highest service rating in the company. Why? Because they know their core values and live them out.
Is it easy to clarify your values as a leader and affirm shared values within your organization? No, it is not. It takes time and effort. Is it worth it? Unquestionably. Anchored by core values, you will not find yourself adrift in your mission, vision, operations, or decisions. You will be able to lead with confidence, knowing that your employees are right in step with you.
Did you miss the first blog in the “Leadership Challenge” series? If so, read it here.