Sunday, March 4, 2012

Understanding the relationship between leadership and values

Many great questions have been asked in the various leadership development programs that I have been facilitating recently. One of those questions was, "Why have personal or organisational values?" On a personal level, living a life that is consistent with our personal values is one of the ways to live a happier life compared with someone who does not live such a consistent life. This is irrespective of material wealth.

Life has a habit of creating difficult situations through which we must navigate and the path that we choose to take can be guided by our values. If, however, you don't know what your personal values are, then it is very difficult to choose a path that is aligned with them. Some might suggest that it is easier to not have values. I'm yet to experience a value-less person. By this I mean that everyone has values; their behaviours indicate what they are. The issue is whether or not the person knows what values they are portraying. It is easy to preach a certain range of values; the challenge can be living them.

Ultimately a simple metaphor can help with this idea of values. Irrespective of your role in life, at the end of each day when you are home and look at yourself in the mirror, are you proud of the person staring back at you? In 1934 the editor of the New York Post (a monthly magazine at the time) was sent a letter by an 18 year old male. His letter contained a single question, "Why be honest?". The editor thought that it was such a great question that he published it the next month and asked the readers to send in their replies. He promised to publish the best response.

The following poem was adjudged the best response. While written in 1934 I think the essence of the poem has significant value to this day. Many of you may not have heard of the word 'pelf'. It means, "money or wealth, esp. when regarded with contempt or acquired by reprehensible means." In other words it is when you acquire wealth no matter the cost to others.

Dale Winbrow, the poem's author, was not a poet. He simply penned this poem in response to the 18 years old's question. If you would like to learn more about Dale Wimbrow visit http://www.theguyintheglass.com/gig.htm. This is my favourite poem and has been since I was introduced to it in 1996.

The Guy in the Glass

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,

And the world makes you King for a day,

Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,

And see what that guy has to say.



For it isn't your Father, or Mother, or Wife,

Who judgement upon you must pass.

The feller whose verdict counts most in your life

Is the guy staring back from the glass.



He's the feller to please, never mind all the rest,

For he's with you clear up to the end,

And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test

If the guy in the glass is your friend.



You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,

And think you're a wonderful guy,

But the man in the glass says you're only a bum

If you can't look him straight in the eye.



You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,

And get pats on the back as you pass,

But your final reward will be heartaches and tears

If you've cheated the guy in the glass.


Ultimately living a life in which we behave in a way that is consistent with our values across all our various life roles provides us the best chance to be happy when we look at the person staring back at us in the mirror. It is possible to be lauded as a great person but not be happy. This can be because, at the end of the day when we are alone and looking at ourselves in the mirror we may be aware that we have not been true to our values or ourselves in the way that we have behaved during the day.

So what does this have to do with leadership. Michelle Hunt (Dream Makers) suggests that formal leadership roles carry a great weight of responsibility because they involve a serious meddling in other people's lives. When we hold positions of leadership within any organisation whether it be for profit, not for profit or government based, our decisions can have a direct impact on many people's lives. Performing our roles in the context of our personal values becomes critical for both personal happiness and organisational performance. If we are working full time, we spend too much time at work to behave in a way that is not consistent with our values to think that there would not be a negative effect on the rest of our lives. (You can find out more about Michelle Hunt by visiting http://www.dreammakers.org/)

A business reality, particularly in difficult economic times may involve reducing staff numbers. A question worth asking before taking such action is, "Have we truly exhausted all other options?".

Another consideration is, "Did we have the foresight to prepare for more difficult times when times were good?".

If we still have to make staff redundant, our values, and in this case our organisational values can guide the way we go about performing this process. As our values are an element of our vision, should we decide to ignore our values in the way we would perform such a task we guarantee, in my view, in ensuring that our vision will NOT be achieved. Is that a price that we are willing to pay for the sake (usually) of saving a few dollars and maintaining our dignity (and the dignity of those being made redundant) when such a decision is made?
While your experience may be such that not many organisations are true to their values, I suggest that this is NOT an excuse for you to do the same. You are not monkeys, so you do not have to do, "Monkey see, monkey do".

Taking action in alignment with organisational vales can take courage. A few years ago The Herald Sun Sunday Newspaper in Melbourne published front page headlines and alleged photographs of prospective Queensland parliamentarian Pauline Hanson one week before the Queensland State election. The photographs were of a sexual nature and were reported to have been from an earlier time in Pauline's life. The authenticity of the photographs was immediately questioned.

A week later after public outrage about the photographs and evidence that clearly indicated that the photographs were not Pauline Hanson the Newspaper published a public apology (interestingly buried on page 68!). While a noble act, the behaviour of the paper cannot be undone.

To me the values of the paper's editors were obvious. Sell papers at any cost. I wonder whether that was the true value set of the editor? This is one of the reason's that organisational values are so critical. Without them organisations are at risk of behaving in ways that can taint the brand of the organisation and reduce trust in the organisation by its customers.

If your organisation has a set of values and you have a leadership role within that organisation, then it is your duty to be able to explain how you have used the values in your decision making processes. It is through sharing real stories and examples that staff within the organisation develop their understanding of the values in action. In this way the values help create the results that you desire. So, if your organisation is about making money (which, by the way, has nothing inherently wrong with it) it can do so while also having a clear set of organisational values.

In the case of the newspaper, imagine if it held the value of integrity. If such a value were alive and well in the way that decisions were made at the paper, then the photographs and the article would have never been published in the first place. The paper would have had systems in place (systems that had been created to support their values) to ensure that the appropriate checks on the story had taken place before it was published.

You may be in a situation where your organisation has values but you can't see how they are lived. You may even hold the view that 'those at the top' are hypocrites. Maybe they are. Your challenge is this. If you actually believe in your organisation's values, is your behaviour aligned to them? Are you able to explain your decisions in the context of your organisation’s values? Too many people say something like, "Well the leaders don't live by the values, so why should I?

Why would anyone base their own poor behaviour on someone-else's poor behaviour?.

There is no doubt that living your values can be challenging. Doing so within an organisational context can be even more challenging. However it can be done.

The only person who will know how you are performing in the context of living your values is you. So, when you look in the mirror at the end of each day, what does that person have to say back to you?

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