If you Want to Lead Well Clarify your Values

Leadership word ScreenDick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has a reputation for being decisive, leading with high expectations, and remaining focused on the long-term, but he’s also known for being accessible, disarming and, of course, funny according to Jena McGregor.[i]  Why is this important to understand? The weakest and most toxic organizations are those led by people who are inconsistent, non-committal, people pleasers who engage their work as though tasks were amoral and not morally contingent. Leaders like Costolo spend time thinking and speaking about leadership and what makes leadership work. Leaders who build great organizations understand that the tasks of leadership are morally contingent.  That is they know that the values of the person engaging the tasks of leadership actually shape the moral content of those values. This morally contingent characteristic of leadership tasks require that leaders routinely and explicitly review their own values and how these values find expression in the leader’s daily activities or disciplines.  Put another way, your organization’s behavior ultimately reflects your attention or inattention to making your own values explicit and understood.

Research routinely points to the importance of the leader’s self awareness and clarity about their moral commitments.

Based on nearly two decades of research, I have discovered that resilient leaders often have several traits: They are optimistic, innovative, decisive, trustworthy, willing to accept responsibility and able to communicate effectively.[ii]

The words, “decisive,” “trustworthy,” and “willing to accept responsibility” all point to the integrity with which a leader works.  In contrast an amoral view of leadership assumes that key leadership decisions are simple data driven exercises of logic. In fact key leadership decisions never reduce to simple data – any manager can make a data driven decision. Key leadership decisions are always far more complex because they must synthesize the various priorities and values of various functions across the organization.

An amoral view of leadership assumes that the leader’s values are universal.  This view cuts out all voices but the leader’s in key decisions. This leader is the “my way or the highway” tyrant. Consider for a moment that if values were universal the words disagreement and conflict would contain no meaning whatsoever.  Even in relatively small companies a leader must consider conflicts that arise in the differences in how various departments see their tasks. These differences are not data driven they are value driven. Values indicate what is important to getting the job done.

An amoral view of leadership ultimately seeks to avoid responsibility for decisions and actions. Simply put leaders shirk their core responsibility when they refuse to engage people and emotions. Lack of clarity about why the organization exists makes any group little more than a mechanism for evasion of responsibility and leadership.  Rather than define the “why” the business exists and persuade and recruit the right people to a vision for the future, this leader pushes for results in the short-term that few ultimately own for the simple reason that they have no reason to fully engage anything other than minimal activity to meet results. Additional this builds a culture of evasion manifested in internal bickering that seeks to assign fault.

Avoiding the hard work of defining the “why” behind the company’s existence results in significant blind spots in how the organization sees their opportunities and threats.  Competitors offer similar products or services. Competitors carry out their products or services in similar ways or through similar competencies. What makes your customers or clients want to do business with your organization?  The age-old sales adage is sell the sizzle not the steak.  There is truth in this.

Avoiding the hard work of defining the “why” behind the company’s existence means finding the right people will get lost in finding the least expensive talent. If profit is the reason for existence then reducing costs become the most important exercise the leader engages.  This short-term perspective works.  However it is unsustainable. Profits are a result not a means. This kind of profit orientation ultimately endorses cost cutting measures that reduce product quality and customer service. Again, it works in the short-term but customers are not stupid and as sales drop and talent exits the leader who never does the hard work of defining why the company exists will never understand why it dies.

So what is the role of the leader?  Organizations depend on shared meanings and interpretations of reality to facilitate coordinated action. The leader’s first job is to help the organization turn their tacitly held shared meanings to explicitly held values of why and how things get done. The leader encourages clear and sometimes tense conversations with the goal of pulling these meanings, inferences and beliefs into the open.  This requires a level of vulnerability on the part of the leader and ego strength significant enough to endure disagreement and the skill in asking the kinds of questions that get others to talk about their assumed perspectives of reality.

How the leader carries herself or himself is critical Effective leaders realize three things: (1) they work to reframe situations to demonstrate new perspectives that call others to action; (2) they articulate and define what had previously remained implicit or unsaid; (3) they consolidate or challenge prevailing wisdom to suggest new directions – this is a function of data analysis and challenging prevailing wisdom i.e., values.

People are drawn to leaders not because of their personalities but because they have:

  • a dream (what is possible that may seem impossible to others?);
  • a vision (what difference does the dream make in people’s lives?);
  • a set of intentions (an idea of what needs to be done to turn the vision into reality and the personal commitment to attempt it);
  • an agenda (a call to others to engage their abilities and belief in the same vision);
  • a clearly stated frame of reference (the values and assumptions and data that give plausibility to the vision).

If you lead an organization or group have you taken the time to think about and define these aspects of your values?  If you have difficulty thinking in these terms then find a mentor or a coach who can help you ask the deep questions that get you there.


[i] Jena McGregor. “What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is Like as a Leader.” Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/09/13/what-twitter-ceo-dick-costolo-is-like-as-a-leader/#!; accessed 15 September 2013.

[ii] George S Everly Jr. “Episodes of Failed Leadership in 2010 Taught Lessons.” Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/30/AR2010123003273.html; accessed 15 September 2013.