Living according to our values is a process of maturation that takes courage. Without that courage, transformational leadership is next to impossible.
At times we may live values loosely but for the wrong reasons. We may comply with organisational values out of fear of losing our job. Or we may live them to appear good to others; in other words, it’s not about the values themselves, but rather about protecting our image or position.
Our understanding of values and our reasons for following them are largely externalised. The highest level of maturity involves internalising values and living them even at the expense of compliance or financial safety. This is what’s required for truly transformational leadership.
We can know we really “get it” when we live our values even, or especially, when it costs us dearly.
I had a personal experience with this that I’ll never forget.
Shortly after the global financial crisis, my company was really struggling—in fact, close to bankruptcy.
Then we signed on a new client, an iconic brand that put us back on the map. This was really our only chance of pulling out of dire straits.
It was during my second session working with the whole executive team that my values were put to the test.
I’d spent only about three hours working personally with the CEO. We barely knew each other. In this session, he started verbally abusing one of his team members. It reached a point where I knew I was obliged to say something to stay true to my value of honesty.
But I also knew the very existence of my company could be seriously threatened by my speaking out. In all likelihood, if it backfired on me, my business would tank. On the other hand, if I didn’t say something, my values would be compromised. Transformational leadership means taking such risks.
I still remember vividly a bead of sweat trickling down my temple as I gently called him out on his behaviour.
Thankfully, at heart he is a wonderful man and he took it well. He stopped himself and clarified what he was requesting. In the end, it created a great relationship between the two of us.
I was deeply grateful that day not only because I kept the client and my business survived, but because I chose to live from my values whatever the consequences. I haven’t always done this, and it’s definitely still a work in progress, but when I do, I know with certainty that I’m on track with my transformational leadership efforts.
When we base our wellbeing on external circumstances, a risk like this seems crazy and pointless. We don’t really even understand the purpose of taking it.
But when we truly integrate a values-based approach, we realise that if our fundamental identity and sense of self- worth is contingent on anything outside ourselves, it is guaranteed that we will compromise our values and end up in a world of inner conflict and/or numbness.
For example, when faced with the choice between being honest and being liked, we will choose being liked and accepted, but we will have to tell ourselves we are honest in order to maintain a degree of emotional comfort. Ironically, to keep liking ourselves we will lie to ourselves, which is a self-defeating habit and an enemy of transformational leadership.
Living and leading from wholesome values truly transforms us. Our fundamental source of wellbeing has shifted from the fluid and unpredictable external world to an inner compass of goodness.
The journey to transformational leadership challenges us to the very core, but we set out courageously in order to gain the wisdom and peace that can only come from living in alignment with our most fundamental, life-serving values.