How Values Keep Us On Track As Leaders | Leadership Blog

In their book The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner explain that, ‘Leadership begins with a belief in yourself and continues only if other people believe in you.’ To believe in you, people have to know (1) who you are and what you stand for, and (2) whether or not they can trust you. In other words, leaders must walk their talk, and in order to do that, they must have a talk to walk. Values are your talk, and living in accordance with them through your behaviour — what Jim and Barry call ‘modelling the way’ — is your walk.

Values are far more than lofty, intangible ideals. When applied properly, they are living, breathing forces that direct our behaviour. Even deeper, consciously choosing and living values helps us overcome subconscious programming and conditioned responses.

Mimi Huizinga, Senior Vice President and Head of U.S. Oncology Medical at Novartis, explained to me how values wake her up when she sometimes uses numbness to escape from life. ‘Numbness means you’ve built walls, so you’re protecting yourself from agony. But in the process you’re also blocking joy. When I’m numb, the organisational purpose doesn’t energise or motivate me. I often feel like I want to sleep more. Everything is harder when I’m numb. And I’ll often find myself doing unhelpful things to stay in numbness. It’s amazing how many ways I can find to distract myself from doing the real development work.’

The key to pulling herself out of numbness, she realised, is to reconnect with her core value of curiosity. As she put it, ‘When I’m feeling numb, it’s coming from a place of frustration and exhaustion, rather than energising curiosity. I’ve been keeping a lot of feelings at bay. So when I can flip the switch into curiosity, I can reconnect with and explore my feelings, and reconnect with all of life. Through curiosity, I rediscover excitement and joy.’

Clarifying one’s values typically demands many iterations and requires us to ask at least four fundamental questions:

  • What really matters to me? This is a very broad question. In an organisational context, it can be narrowed down to what really matters to me in this organisation or team, or as a leader.

  • What is life asking of me? This question allows us to get outside our ego structure and let the more intuitive part of our self express itself.

  • Why is this important to me now? It allows us to start homing in on what we practically wish to focus on in the present moment while anchored in a purposeful life.

  • Where is my life not working and what value/s could I adopt to help me grow and deal with this more constructively? This helps us consider values from a growth perspective.

This introspective work behind identifying one’s values is key to becoming consciously developmental while fostering psychological wellbeing, both of which are foundational to achieving a self-examining or transformational mind.