Living in accordance with our values is critical not only for leadership development, but also for our own health and wellbeing. Many studies have confirmed this.
One analysis of 63 different ACT-related studies showed that by helping clients choose wholesome values and align their behaviours with them, ACT effectively treats a variety of anxiety disorders. Consistently engaging in activities that align with wholesome values increases our psychological flexibility, which is the key to being open to experience and minimising our feelings of anxiety or worry.
Another study showed that character-building exercises had a reliable positive effect on participants’ wellbeing, academic self-efficacy and achievement. Expressing wholesome values reduces feelings of anxiety, and engaging in activities that build character increases our overall health and wellbeing.
A similar study concluded, “Character is not something you are born with, it is a skill that can be developed and improved over the course of your entire life.”
Furthermore, character is a non-cognitive skill that better predicts both academic and workplace success when compared with measures of IQ. And it is a learned skill. All of us have the potential to improve our character, and thus our overall happiness and fulfillment, by aligning with our values.
One team of researchers analysed the responses of 5,299 individuals to identify how their scores on a Values in Action inventory of strengths related to life satisfaction. The higher a reported character strength, the higher the associated life satisfaction.
Furthermore, the “monotonic” effect of high character on life satisfaction means we cannot overdose on character. The stronger one’s character, the more life satisfaction is felt.
In a related study by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, managers were asked about their clarity around their personal values and the values of their organisation, and their level of commitment to their organisation. The results showed that being clear on your personal values is far more important to your leadership development than your organisation being clear on its values.
This supports the ACT finding that living from your values leads to more vitality, and vitality shows up in more commitment to what you are doing. As a leader, defining and modelling shared values is critical. But first and most important is defining and modelling your personal values.
Living in accordance with our values, and with personal integrity, is not just about leadership development. It’s also about feeling happy with ourselves and our lives.
Values give us personal clarity when those around us are being driven by fear, anxiety or other less-than-wholesome qualities.
Making a Stand
I often ask my clients to imagine the following scenario: In a playground of ten-year-olds a new kid from a different ethnic background is being abused by the school bullies, while the other kids stand by and watch.
Which of the following courses would you want your child to choose?
- Join in with the crowd and do nothing.
- Join the bullies.
- Stand up for the other child, for example by reporting the bullies or protecting the other child by fighting back.
Obviously, nearly everyone chooses option three. Granted, they choose it from the safety of a hypothetical.
But they choose it for a reason: they know that is the wholesome values choice, while the other two are based on fear or ignorance.
We all know that option three is the right choice—the leadership choice. It’s that clarity of values and the conviction to live them under fire that builds and makes wholesome leaders. It allows the person to individuate under pressure, to be their own person, to be a leader.
Then I ask clients why they would want their child to choose option three when they will undoubtedly suffer for it by being beaten or bullied themselves, or deserted by and alienated from their timid friends. This is a fascinating discussion.
Everyone knows in their heart that living wholesome values is a beautiful, worthwhile, meaningful endeavour that generates self-acceptance, strength and inner peace. It’s a critical piece of leadership development.
The key, of course, is developing the awareness and strength not to be undermined by fear and greed, as the vast majority of people are when they feel their job, reputation or approval needs are threatened.
We all love wholesome values, but we often lack the courage to live them because we have not come to appreciate how psychologically important they are for both our leadership development and our wellbeing.