Why Our Values Must Be Backed by Action | Leadership Blog

The basis of leadership is trust. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey explains, ‘Trust always affects two measurable outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. This creates a trust tax. When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down. This creates a trust dividend. It’s that simple, it’s that predictable.’

Research shows that the two most important qualities for leaders to develop are respect and honesty. Unfortunately, leaders often don’t live up to these values. The research firm Willis Towers Watson surveyed 32 000 people in 26 markets and asked them to respond to three statements. The following chart shows what they discovered:

Do we trust our leaders?

Statement assessed

Agree (%)

Senior leadership behaves consistently with the organisation’s core values.


I believe the information that I receive from senior leadership.


My immediate manager acts in ways consistent with his or her words.


Source: adapted from Willis Towers Watson, GWS Global Report 2016.

Another research study performed by DataPad involving 2100 respondents in the UK gauged how much employees trusted their leaders. The survey asked employees the same question on ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ in relation to their executive leadership, heads of department and immediate line managers: 999 people responded to the question on their CEOs; 1264 responded to the question on their immediate managers. Of those who responded to the question ‘Do you trust and respect your CEO?’, 30 per cent responded ‘not at all’ and another 39 per cent responded ‘a little’. Immediate managers were trusted ‘a lot’ by only 48 per cent of those who responded and ‘a little’ by 36 per cent; 16 per cent of immediate managers were not trusted at all.

It’s actually quite shocking how low these numbers are. One of our favourite questions to ask our clients is, ‘Do you think the leaders who score low are aware that people don’t trust them?’ Evidently, most leaders are not. As professor of psychology Dan Ariely says, ‘Individuals are honest only to the extent that actually suits them, including their desire to please others.’

Clearly, we have work to do not only in defining our values, but in committing to actually practise them.

Values are far more than lofty, intangible ideals. When applied properly, they are living, breathing forces that direct our behaviour. Are your values a living practice? What practices do you use and what actions do you take daily to align with what you stand for? If you have to think about it, then it’s clearly not actually living or operational in your life.

Here are a few questions to help you gauge whether or not you are walking your values talk in your life:

  • How did your talk shape your behaviour (walk) over the past week?

  • At any point, did you refer to the talk you’re trying to walk in order to modify your behaviour?

  • Can you describe a moment in the past two or three weeks when you had to actively work through fear, a loss of approval or a sense of embarrassment in order to walk your talk?

If you struggle to answer these questions — as most leaders do — there’s a good chance that you’re not clear on your ‘talk’ and that you have no aligned development practice or ‘walk’. The result is a loss of trust and credibility among those you lead.

The purpose of holding values is not to pretend that simply identifying with values alone makes us good people. Rather, it’s to help us identify our values breaches, address them, and change our behaviour to grow in the direction of our values. We don’t choose growth values based on who we believe we already are. Rather, we choose them in areas where we see room for improvement.