To believe in you as a leader, 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.
To model the way, leaders must have a core philosophy, a set of values and principles that govern how they lead. Transformational leaders understand that leadership credibility is determined by how well they live what they preach.
Unfortunately, it’s far easier to preach our values than to actually live them. Here are four steps for putting your core leadership values into action:
Step 1: Identify your one big thing
It’s pointless to choose values without a daily commitment to deliberately cultivating that value in action. People don’t experience your aspirations — they experience your behaviour.
On making behavioural changes, Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey strongly recommend that instead of working on multiple changes at the same time, we always focus on what he calls your ‘one big thing’, or ‘OBT’. This recommendation aligns completely with our 30 years of experience in this work. Less is most definitely more. Your OBT is the one big thing you want to change in your behaviour that will help you live your values and aspirations more consistently. By choosing your OBT, you are being deliberately conscious of your growth edge. You understand that this will likely lead to discomfort, but that it will be worth the effort. You are choosing to step out of your comfort zone.
Behaviour change is profoundly difficult. Lisa Lahey suggests that it takes a minimum of 12 months to change one behaviour. If we choose more than one behaviour to change at a time, we’re almost guaranteeing failure, because it confuses us and complicates the process. Think of this as applied to sports, like changing your swimming stroke, your golf swing or your running stride. In these examples, it’s easy to see that it’s impossible to focus on multiple changes at a time. You have to make one incremental change at a time.
Choosing a single, values-aligned behavioural change sounds simple enough. The truth is it’s actually quite hard to do. One reason for this is that we are often blind to the truth about ourselves. If left to our own devices, we can choose behaviour changes that are misguided and counterproductive, which can both further entrench our fast-brain, moving-away tendencies and create more dysfunction in our relationships and teams.
Consider, for example, the avoidant boss who cultivates the value of kindness. He chooses as his behaviour change to ‘listen to his team members more’. What is actually needed to improve his team’s performance, however, is for him to get better at holding team members accountable.
Or consider the aggressive boss who cultivates the value of accountability and chooses the behaviour change to ‘be clearer and more direct about holding team members accountable’. For her team, a more productive change may be to ‘actively listen to team members to better understand their needs’.
Another reason why committing to OBT is challenging is because it is uncomfortable. Our fast brain seeks to avoid discomfort and to achieve short-term gratification. The mere idea of choosing a behaviour outside our usual repertoire will be unconsciously strongly resisted. We need to bring awareness to this discomfort and consciously choose with our slow brain what is truly best to support our growth, rather than please the ego structure that seeks validation or comfort.
To overcome these challenges and choose the most productive behavioural change for you, the best advice we can give you is to involve other people in order to gain greater objectivity. To become a more effective leader, ask your peers and colleagues, family and friends, and trusted mentors to help you identify your blind spots and your most important growth edge. In our digital training program, Mindful Leader: How to Master Self-Awareness and Growth Mindset, we almost always run leaders through our anonymous Mindful Leader 360° assessment, where their direct reports, peers and boss are able to give them a complete and objective picture of their real development needs.
Here’s a useful hint: Your OBT is probably the last thing you want to do, the thing you resist the most. Paul Spittle, Chief Commercial Officer of General Medicines at the biopharmaceutical firm Sanofi, explained, ‘My OBT was given to me by my team: “Empowering others to challenge the status quo.” I never would have come up with that in a million years. My team’s feedback basically was, “You’re really good at challenging the status quote yourself, but that doesn’t always leave space for other people to do it. Create the space for and encourage other people to do it.” I thought that was brilliant feedback. It’s extremely difficult for me to do. And what’s so beautiful about it is I never would have come up with it myself.’
Step 2: Identify additional skills you will need
Once you’ve chosen your OBT, your next step is to create the conditions for success. Ask yourself, Are there any other steps I need to consider to help me succeed? This step may include horizontal and vertical growth, the specific qualities, attributes, skills, competencies and behaviours you’ll need to make it easier to succeed at your OBT.
For example, suppose you’ve chosen as your OBT ‘Become more effective at holding team members accountable’. In this case, you may want to read books and attend seminars on improving your communication skills. Or if your OBT is ‘Give more praise to team members’, a critical supporting skill for you may be to become a better listener. By becoming a better listener, you get to know your team members more intimately, which in turn helps you to give them individualised recognition that really connects with their heart.
Step 3: Hold yourself accountable
The third step is holding yourself accountable for your OBT. There are many strategies and tools for doing so, which can include involving other people in holding you accountable.
Tracy Furey, Global Head of Communications and Engagement at Novartis Oncology, told me her OBT is, ‘Give timely and direct feedback in the moment, with added coaching and mentoring’. She needed help with this, she explained, because, ‘I could feel myself over-indexing on the positive. Also, my team members told me I was too much about the positive, and not enough about growing individuals. And I realised that as a result my people weren’t learning and growing as much as they could be.
‘I struggled with it, because on the one hand I had a strong desire to help my people grow, but on the other hand I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with both giving and receiving constructive feedback. I worry about how I’m going to physically respond, like my neck gets red and I worry that people will see how uncomfortable I am. So I have all these fears wrapped up in it. But it’s critical for me to overcome them and be better both for myself and for my team.’
To help her overcome these fears and hold herself accountable for her OBT, she established a ritual with her team members. Now, with every one-on-one meeting she has with a team member, she includes time for them to give and receive feedback.
The prime conditions for growth involve both pressure and support, and you need both in your practice. When you hold yourself accountable, you create healthy pressure for change. But pressure without support can be demoralising, so the pressure must be balanced by support.
Step 4: Create support structures
Speaking of support, to achieve your OBT you must create support structures that help you succeed. These support structures include using rituals, involving other people and seeking out education opportunities.
Suppose your OBT is ‘Be calm under pressure’. To help you with this, one daily ritual could include 10 to 20 minutes of meditation. Another ritual could include setting up a support group that meets every two weeks to discuss your OBT and practise it together.
You will want to involve other people to support you in your practice, such as trusted coaches and mentors, close friends, family or therapists.
Support can also include systems such as the previously described 360° feedback tool in our mobile app, or setting up reminders for yourself in your calendar or notepad. It can also include restructuring team meetings to best serve new behaviours, such as including a check-in moment for all to connect your OBT in a more meaningful way with team members.
By taking committed action in the direction of our values, we consciously move towards who we want to become, reducing the cognitive dissonance we feel and increasing our inner peace. Ultimately, the closer we align our behaviours with our values, the more we create a healthy environment in which all can grow and lead meaningful lives.