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‘Leadership is driven by values’ – this is a slogan that’s repeated more often than it’s understood. Tucked away within this slogan is the idea that you need to know your own direction before others can follow. No amount of training or instruction will get your team to a point where they don’t depend on you, if they don’t internalise your values first.

So first let’s look at why it is that leaders have to lead through the transmission of values. And the simple answer is that their influence has to be in the room when they themselves are not. As a leader, Using a leadership you want people to make autonomous decisions, but to make them in line with your wishes, so that everyone’s pulling in the right direction.  

No amount of training or instruction will get your team to a point where they don’t depend on you unless they internalise your values. So communicating your values is vital. If you’ve done it effectively then people already know what matters to you, so they know what’s important in any decision, without having to check back with you.  Of course, from time to time, there will be questions that need to come up the chain for you to look at, but if your values are clear and consistent, these requests will be appropriate. 

So that’s the ‘why’. Now let’s look at the ‘how’. Or at least, the first part of the ‘how’. 

I’d like to take a look at why it’s true, and what’s necessary to act on it. A good starting point is to understand that for you to really lead, it’s necessary for others to really follow. And that means they have to follow you. There’s a big difference between following a person and merely following instructions. To follow you as a person, others need an idea of who you are, one that makes sense to them. And for you to communicate who you are, you need to know who you are. 

 Take a look at this list of values. Which of them do you most want? 

  • Respect from others
  • Kindness to others
  • Meeting goals
  • Honesty to others
  • Recognition & Reward
  • Financial Security

Most of us want all of these. The key thing is: which do you prioritise if they come into conflict? In everyday life we may have to compromise on one to achieve/protect another. You can probably think of someone who lost the respect of others by pushing too hard to get recognition and reward. Or someone who didn’t fully meet a goal because they wanted to be kind to a co-worker rather than hound them into producing the goods.  

It’s easier to spot compromise in others than in ourselves. But self-awareness requires us to do that work. The best time to do that is when we’re stuck in an uncomfortable dilemma. Unfortunately, we’re so busy getting out of it and leaving it behind that we rarely stop to reflect – to notice how our primary values won out over our secondary ones.  

You can do it like this: 

  • What was I required to do? 
  • Why was it difficult? 
  • What did I end up doing that was painful? 

What you ended up doing is what you prioritised. What caused you pain tells you the value that you had to override. Here’s a typical example: 

  • I had to tell my boss I was leaving to take up a new opportunity. 
  • I knew he would be resentful as I haven’t ‘repaid’ the firm’s investment in me. 
  • When I told him, I was hurt by his cold, dismissive reaction

This tells you that you put career progress above something else. Perhaps it was loyalty to the boss or firm. Perhaps it was personal reputation and goodwill. Perhaps it was harmonious relationships at work. Perhaps a mix of all three. 

If, however, you had turned the new opportunity down because you hated the idea of telling the boss who’d invested in you, it would show something different was your supreme value. Remember, the values that end up on the losing side are still values for you, but they are not the supreme ones. And it’s the supreme ones that define who you are in contrast to others. 

Realising what your values are is a necessary step towards communicating them. But also it’s good to realise that simply understanding yourself better will almost certainly lead to better communication of your values, because it’s how you interact with people, all day every day, that matters most in establishing who you are in the minds of other people. 

For a real-life example, have a read of this story.


For more information on leadership, take a look at our complete guide to Leadership Skills.


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