Leadership Barometer 95 Clarify Values

June 2, 2021

A fundamental function of leaders is to clarify the values of the organization.

The starting point is to understand your own bedrock beliefs and have your actions flow from them. Congruity is a central issue to good leadership. People will quickly notice every hypocritical action or statement.

For example, if you claim “people are our most important asset” as a value, be prepared to defend all actions in light of that strong statement. Most leaders cannot pass this test. When sales go soft, they lay off people.

Mahatma Gandhi was a perfect example of congruity. His strength was derived from understanding his values and giving up all the trappings of conventional power. His objective was not to fix everyone else; it was simply to live a life consistent with his beliefs and stubbornly refuse to back away from that commitment, whatever the cost.

Gandhi ended up one of the most powerful leaders in history, having incredible influence on his nation and the world. He taught, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Transform yourself before attempting to influence others.

Start by creating a list of your deeply held values. These must be real beliefs and not just nice things to say, as they will be tested thousands of times. This first step is so critical, it is worth taking the time to do right.

Get away from distractions while attempting to extract your core beliefs. The key is to examine yourself very carefully. You may want to work with a facilitator or group of friends on this, but start the process alone. Bring in others once you have a first draft to share.

Brainstorming is a helpful tool for this. Sit alone in a comfortable chair with eyes closed and some non-intrusive background music playing, and let your mind wander on the subject of your core beliefs. Write down anything that comes to mind, exactly as you think it, without trying to make it politically correct. Just capture the thoughts. This may be difficult to do honestly. This exercise can take from two to eight hours, and more than one try might be necessary. Once you are comfortable with the process, ideas will flow rapidly.

When it feels complete, put the list away and do not analyze it until later. Resist the temptation to charge ahead to the next step. Allow your subconscious mind time to work on the list. Additional items will flow naturally over the next week or so, when you are in a meeting, in the shower, driving, or even sleeping. This extremely valuable information must be captured. Keep a pad handy to jot down thoughts as they arise.

After a couple weeks, you should have captured 40-50 items, and the list will feel more complete. Start the winnowing process by doing an analysis of similar items. Write each item on a card, and arrange them into piles with common themes. Consolidate the piles down to a handful of key values.

Four to six piles would be optimal, although you could have more. One pile might focus on your beliefs about what drives people, like: “I believe all people are basically good and want to do well” or “I believe people do their best work when they feel trusted.” Whatever your cards say will dictate the piles. Next, give each pile a name. In our previous example, the name would be “what motivates people.” Another pile might be “how to make our business prosper” or “what I want out of life.” Let the data speak for itself.

Distill the input in each pile down to its essence and express it in a single phrase or sentence. This may be challenging or frustrating but it is an essential part of the process. Keep working the cards until you get to a handful of key concepts central to your beliefs as a leader. If there are private beliefs not helpful to share in a work setting, you can cull these out before sharing, but understand these are also keys to what drives you.

It is insightful to compare your values to those of the parent organization. They may not be exactly the same, but they must be compatible. If you have been dissatisfied or uncomfortable in your job, this exercise may help you understand why. You may be better off leaving to find a more compatible environment if the organization’s values are not congruent with your own.

Now that you have clarified your values, let others reflect on them and do a similar process. Working with your team, repeat the same steps to construct a set of values for your group. Having done your personal homework ahead of time will make the process faster and easier.

The process of “wordsmithing” these lists can be frustrating. It is possible to have groups spend hours arguing over exact words for a values statement or a vision and get stuck on it every time it comes up. A professional facilitator can help streamline the process and avoid lengthy debate sessions.

If you are unanimous in spirit but hung up on words, get it roughly right and move forward. Use the 80/20 rule for this. (The 80/20 rule is derived from the “Pareto Principle,” which states that in any grouping of items, 80% of the value will be contained in 20% of the items.) Focus energy on the 20% of items that contain 80% of the value and table the others. It is not the words that are important, but the spirit and understanding.

The final result should be a set of values fully supported by your key leaders that grew out of discussions of everyone’s personal values. Putting this information on charts for the wall is helpful, but it is much more important to have it implanted in the minds and hearts of everyone. Only when internalized will it do any good.

If you are not in a formal leadership position, documenting your personal values is still important. Use them to chart your personal course. Sharing them with others in your group or with your boss shows maturity and facilitates communication.

One caution: this should be done with care and only when a proper rapport between people has developed. Sharing your personal values in the wrong way at the wrong time can backfire. It is better to weave the ideas into natural conversation than to force them on people. For example, you might say, “Let’s allow Sally to provide her own wording for the proposal. I believe people become more engaged in the work if they have the personal freedom to choose how it is done. In fact that is one of my core values.”


The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.
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