You don’t have to stay the same leader: Your leader values
NOTE: Republished from my The Leader Journey site, originally written in September 2021
I spent last week with a variety of people who have known me anywhere from one to 15 years in various leadership and non-leadership capacities. As we discussed and chatted, I had moments of realizing that the leader I was 15 years ago would have reacted differently and had different thoughts than the leader I am today. That leader 15 years ago was less rooted in her values, had less understanding and experience of leading individuals through their lives, less lived life and less pain, which resulted in more judgment and less compassion. While not a perfect leader, I strive for being a student of leadership, always open to new ideas and feedback, and a practitioner of leadership, evolving myself and my leadership practices and behaviors. Lots of things have contributed to the leader I am working on becoming today, but I believe in many ways it started with values.
From Brené Brown's Dare to Lead to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner's The Leadership Challenge, the need for a leader to identify their values and what they stand for is shown as essential to leadership and leadership effectiveness. I have seen a variety of ways that people can get at their values - cards with definitions, cards without definitions, lists of values with definitions, lists of values without definitions. Blank spaces to add in values. As I reflected on the conversations I was having with other leaders about important and hard topics, I found myself going back to my values: integrity, respect, and caring. As I have led through recent crisis and stress situations, I often found myself going back to these values. I also listened to others' decision making processes and would ask - what guided you to that decision or that language?
NOTE: There are debates about if you have "personal" AND "professional" values. Some people think you can have two, but I tend to be of the mindset that if you don't want to feel split between two worlds, then gaining clarity about what authentically guides you will guide you in both your professional and personal lives. (Though I am always open to a discussion with counterpoints.)
Accountability to self and to others: Living the Values
The question - what guides you? What guides your decisions about how you treat people? What guides you about organizations you can stay in or can't? What guides you for when you can not stay silent? These questions are where the living the values piece can get difficult. Almost anyone applying for a leadership role will be asked a question about management or leadership philosophy. Lots of people can give some rote answer, quoting a great leadership or management theorist or researcher. But ... when they get the job and things get hard (because they always do at some point), will that interview answer be a guide for decision making? Will that leader actually show up as principled and values-centered? Brown in Dare to Lead, states it plainly: "Living into our values requires some upfront work - contemplation that most of us have never taken the time to do" (Brown, 2019, p. 186). In other words, if you truly want to lead from a values-based place, you can't just say you have values and pretend you know what they mean to you or to others. You need to spend the time grappling with what matters to you - and the why. (These exercises also aid in leader as storyteller, but that's a topic for another day.)
And then you need to practice the values. And communicate the values to other people. And create space for when you do not act in alignment with those values for someone to provide you that feedback (which won't be easy but will be essential to deepening your leadership practice). No one is perfect at this process. However, deeply grounded leaders know that being values-centered isn't leadership by accident but leadership by intention.
Last week I spoke in places I would have stayed quiet 15 years ago. I asked questions of people in power that I wouldn't have dared. In that process, I realized that by sorting through my values, defining them on my terms, and practicing them, I was more able to say and do things - take risks about topics and people I cared about - I wouldn't have been able to do as the leader I was back then.
The leader you are today is likely not going to be the leader you are next year, in five years or beyond. It also doesn't have to be. The question is ... will you go on your leader journey guided by a compass shaped by values or will your journey be one of convenience, opportunity, and hopefully not too many tough choices or decisions? Really, the choice is yours ... are you the same leader you were five years ago? If so, what work do you need to do to continue to advance your leadership practice on your leader journey?
Questions to ponder:
1) If asked tomorrow, how would you articulate your values?
2) If you can clearly articulate your values, how do you check in with yourself on a regular basis that you are living them?
3) How would you react if someone you lead called you on a decision that didn't align with the values you profess?
Brown, B. (2019). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2017). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.