Attempting to lead without a clear value system to guide your way is like “sailing” without the sails. You can motor around the calm waters of the harbor all you want but you’ll be cast adrift on the open ocean.
I recently led a workshop during a leadership conference. My presentation was about the central “voices” of leadership necessary to thrive in the face of complexity and change. I refer to these disciplines or practices as “voices” because leadership is very much an “out loud” experience. I am not referring to extraversion or charisma or any of the other stereotypes of effective leadership. Instead, I am talking about the emergent qualities of self-understanding, relationship building and continuous learning that we must access and practice out in the open if we are to sustain a confident and committed followership.
The first exercise I asked the workshop participants to complete was a reflection on their core values. Specifically, I asked them to share a story about how their value system was initially formed. I encouraged them to consider early school, family or work experiences that were instrumental in shaping what is most important to them. My premise in starting here was and is that if we are to articulate who we are as leaders, a clearly expressed value system must come first. Leadership without values is like language without vowels. It just doesn’t work very well.
The participants considered their experiences and shared their stories. The group discussion that followed revealed that many of them gained significant and useful insights partly through their reflection but primarily through their conversations. Their interactions brought to life memories and influences that were central in shaping their present value system. But not for everyone.
Just recently I received a summary of the evaluations for this workshop and one piece of feedback left me both disheartened and determined. A participant said: “Since I have no idea what my values are I didn’t get a chance to participate in the exercises.”
Yes, I am disheartened that this individual does not know their values but I am even more disheartened that they were unable to use the opportunity of a leadership conference – a potentially profound learning experience – to begin the process of getting clear.
I am disheartened that they felt isolated and excluded and I can only hope that in their own way they will seek the counsel of someone who will help them learn to articulate what matters most to them.
I am disheartened that the “leadership industrial complex” continues to churn out leaders who have not done the most fundamental, most important work of getting clear on who they are.
I am disheartened that my implicit assumption that all of the participants had at least a basic understanding of their values made it unsafe for this person – and likely others – to fully engage in the workshop. That’s an assumption I will not make again.
Mostly, I am determined.
I am determined to speak to the importance of “first things first” and to challenge and support every leader I encounter to get clear about their own foundation – the values that shape their “voice of understanding” – so they will be equipped to thrive in the face of change.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.