How to live and breathe values-based leadership

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Authenticity is a cornerstone of leadership and demonstrating that is a key strand of values-based practice. Leadership Foundation associate Mark Trezona digs a little deeper into what this means in reality.

My lesson in leadership is really to live the values, to breathe the values, to talk about the values. And we might not all experience or share those values in the same way but I think it’s really important that we remember we are here to make a difference. And that difference is all about values.” Cara Aitchison Leadership Lecture 2016.

Values Based Leadership has become ubiquitous in leadership literature and rhetoric over the past few years, partly in response to increasing doubts about the integrity and efficacy of many of the charismatic, dynamic and seemingly transformational leaders that have been prominent.

With leadership experts and practitioners, employees and even entire nations questioning the qualities needed for exemplary leaders, society is demanding leaders who demonstrate a strong sense of values, morals and ethics, says Mary Kay Copeland in her 2014 paper: The Emerging Significance of Values Based Leadership: A Literature Review.

But what is values-driven leadership, and how can we live and breathe our values, as Cara Aitchison calls for?

Copeland identifies Values Based Leadership as the convergence of authentic, ethical and transformational leadership.

Values-based leaders draw on their own and their colleagues’ values for direction and motivation. It is natural for leaders to refer to their own values in creating a vision or making decisions. If they then connect with their colleagues’ values when seeking enactment of their strategies, people are more attuned with each other and what they collectively stand for and care about, as well as what their organisation stands for and the difference it aspires to make.

As a philosophy, Values Based Leadership assumes that an organisation based on shared values is likely to be more flexible and productive, and that values-based leaders will make better choices, build higher quality relationships with colleagues and feel more in tune with their ‘authentic integral self’.

Values in action: bringing a values-based approach to our leadership

If the people we work with are to believe in the sincerity and depth of our organisation’s values, we, as leaders, must lead by example and enact and embody those values – our own as much as our organisation’s.

But how might we do this? The Values In Action character strengths can help.

In 2004, Peterson and Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, which describes the results of a three-year research effort that integrated the insights of over 50 top social scientists into universal personality traits.

As part of this research, Peterson led a substantial historic analysis reviewing the best thinking on virtue, strength and goodness. This mammoth task involved a literature review of previous attempts to classify virtue and an empirical approach driven by two questions:

  • Would the virtue catalogues of early thinkers converge?
  • Would certain virtues, regardless of tradition or culture, be widely valued?

Six similar themes – virtues – emerged across the traditions of Athenian philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These were:

Cognitive strengths such as creativity curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective in the acquisition and use of knowledge.

Emotional strengths such as bravery, perseverance, honesty and zest involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition.

Interpersonal strengths such as capacity to love and be loved, kindness and social intelligence.

Civic strengths such as teamwork, fairness and leadership underly healthy community life.

Strengths protecting against excess are forgiveness, modesty, prudence, and self-regulation.

Strengths of transcendence are appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality.

Twenty-four character strengths were then derived based on how well they met 10 specific strengths criteria, including whether the qualities were morally valued, manifest across situations, and whether there are examples of the strength across the widest spectrum of cultural and organisational contexts.

However, when Values In Action’s Chris Peterson was asked to share his most important finding from all the advancements in character strengths science, he responded simply: character is plural” (Peterson, personal communication, 2010).

What Petersen meant is that people are not simply kind or humble, brave or hopeful. Rather, people have many character strengths, and these strengths are expressed in combinations, each person having a unique profile of character strengths. This informs the rich tapestry of a person’s character. Each person’s expression of character strengths is unique – no two people with creativity as a top strength will express this value in an identical way. In this way, character is individualised and idiosyncratic.

A values framework for higher education

That said, the twenty-four character strengths give us a universal language to describe what is best in human beings. This is a ground-breaking discovery as, historically, there has never been a language of character that crosses cultures. This gives us a potent, meaningful and recognisable framework to think, talk about and act on our different values. It gives us a coherent way of viewing ourselves, and a guide for understanding and sharing who we are at heart.

With this shared lexicon, we can build and grow our collective understanding, interventions and strategies, and make conversations in which leaders, with the people we work with, can bring together a fusion of our individual authentic strengths and values.

In this way we can configure our collective values for different situations, relationships and organisational aspirations in ways that remain deep-seated in our truest and strongest selves – Values Based Leadership in action.

Mark Trezona is an associate and coach with the Leadership Foundation. He has more than twenty years’ experience as a learning and development specialist, with expertise in 21st century leadership, strategy and team development, learning, creativity, communications, and in strengths-based approaches for increasing resilience, engagement and happiness at work. 

Values Based Leadership was the topic of this year’s Annual Wales Conference. Gary Reed, assistant director membership, Wales, discusses what drives it in this blog post.

For more information about our bespoke programmes and how we can tailor them to your institution’s needs, contact Dot Daymond, interim assistant director operations (Consultancy and Bespoke programmes).