Let values live and breathe

21st March 2014 at 00:00

One of the key features of outstanding leadership is that your behaviour should be absolutely consistent with your stated values.

Unfortunately, we have all seen leaders who are all too capable of grandstanding. The air is heavy with their rhetoric and affirmation of values that appear to be cast in iron. Yet when we look at their actual behaviour, we observe that these same values seem to be flexible depending on the circumstances. At least Groucho Marx was being honest when he quipped, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them.well, I have others."

But before this piece begins to sound a bit too much like a hatchet job, I should probably admit that I frequently fail to live up to my own values. One example would be my intention to see only the best in people. Disappointingly, I regularly find myself criticising others.

We each carry around a mental model of how we think we will behave, but so often we fail to live up to it. It is this model that we share with other people and to which we pledge allegiance. Yet when we look at our actual behaviour, especially in extremis, we appear to be conforming to a completely different set of values.

Think about the best leader that you ever worked for: the person who helped you to perform at your top level, or even beyond what you thought yourself capable of. Now make a mental list of their leadership behaviours and try to work out the values associated with these. Then try the same thing with the worst leader you ever worked for: the person who limited your performance and undermined your confidence.

I'm willing to bet that the best leader gave you space to make mistakes, encouraged you and showed consistency between their values and behaviour. I would also predict that the worst leader micromanaged you, failed to trust your judgement and didn't operate consistently with their values.

Pause and ask yourself whether the behaviours that you see manifested by leaders around you are more consistent with the positive or the negative example. Think about how they use data, how much space and trust they give colleagues and how they evaluate performance.

Something seems to happen in the brains of many people who are placed into positions of responsibility that can disconnect how they would like to work from how they actually behave. And such inconsistency is not solely the preserve of leaders at the highest level of an organisation.

Have a go a reverse-engineering your own values from your observable behaviour, looking at yourself through the eyes of those you lead: your students or the colleagues in your team. This is a safe exercise, albeit an uncomfortable one. All too often the values we espouse are not the ones that we can consistently identify in our behaviour.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International

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