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Effective Leaders Articulate Values — and Live by Them

Apr 25, 2024 | Public | 0 comments

Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR | Getty Images

Values lie at the heart of effective leadership, serving as the foundation for decisions and organizational cultures. Yet in the lecture halls, meeting rooms, and offices where we teach leadership, we regularly see a muddiness around how to think about these core principles.

Individuals are often unsure about what constitutes a “value.” When asked to delve deep into personal moral codes and what it means to hold certain standards and ideals, people struggle to clearly convey what they believe and how their actions reflect these beliefs. In truth, we have found that people don’t spend much time thinking about what they stand for unless they face a crisis — by which point, they are unprepared to properly evaluate the possible trade-offs among competing values or the long-term consequences of decisions.

Values are shaped by mindset and choice. People can consciously identify what they value and purposely choose to prioritize it. Though there are many different types of values, some can bring joy and groundedness, whereas others can generate misery or at least difficulty. In practice, some values are destructive or dysfunctional to achieving the results we seek. Understanding why some values serve us better than others is a distinction that can set the course to our ultimate success or failure.

Here, we offer practical steps leaders can take to explore, evaluate, and refine their values to make better decisions and lead organizations toward success. We explain how leaders can develop actions, metrics, and checkups to confirm if they’re really following those principles.

Practical Steps for Leaders to Articulate Their Values

Explore your values and keep the ones that ground you. Successful leaders set aside dedicated time for introspection. They cultivate curiosity about what truly brings them fulfillment. Yet, as with many tenets of leadership, this is easier said than done. Sitting quietly, just thinking about personal values, can be a frustratingly ineffective endeavor. Values are often too abstract to pinpoint without the aid of a structured activity and tangible object.

We recommend leaders begin by identifying an artifact — a simple but tangible object — that symbolizes something they hold dear in their lives. This object can be something that helps tell a personal story about an important topic. We ask individuals to think about how this meaning was formed and what role the belief has played in their personal and professional lives.

Successful leaders set aside dedicated time for introspection.

We’ve seen people select photos of loved ones to reflect their sense of responsibility to others, an army boot that symbolizes belief in sacrifice and service to a greater cause, and tattoos that commemorate a commitment. The process of picking an artifact and explaining its meaning to a colleague helps people uncover what matters most to them. These tangible objects often represent their core values.

Of course, other structured activities can similarly help us discover our deeply embedded beliefs. Journaling is one such tool. Writing down what makes you feel good and the experiences you find interesting can help you not only explore but, more importantly, evaluate your values.

In his book about adopting a counterintuitive approach to living a good life, author Mark Manson makes the case that good values are typically ones that you have control over (that is, you can choose to express them). They are, he says, immediately achievable in how you orient your mind. Good values are also socially constructive. Consider the value of honesty, for example. You can control whether you are honest, and though it might be hard to do sometimes, being honest is typically socially beneficial in the long run.

In contrast, Manson argues, prioritizing external validation — be it through social approval, a singular focus on material success, or being right (or righteous) — is characteristic of bad values. These principles can damage our well-being and be socially destructive. For instance, we all know individuals who value being correct all the time. But this is a value that is untenable and unrealistic. Holding that value is likely to generate more problems than solutions. Popularity as a value is also not great because it’s completely out of our control. It doesn’t matter how you orient your mind; you cannot choose to express popularity.

Good values are typically ones that you have control over.

As you generate ideas for what matters most to you, check whether your values are achieved internally or rely on external events. Generally, the most useful values are things you can directly influence through your personal mindset. Good values are generally aligned with positive actions and reflect an objective reality. Then, consider how much you’re choosing values that are based on others’ perceptions. Deprioritizing these values will help your internal grounding. You’ll have a more stable platform from which to make decisions.

Evaluate your progress. Identifying and articulating your core values are important first steps. Next, measure how those values are influencing your decision-making by keeping track of how you actually express values through personal and professional choices.

Within your personal life, a simple way to do this is to list your values and allocate the number of hours per day (or week) you spend on choices that express these values, the quality of personal energy spent while engaging in these activities, and the amount of money you spend in their pursuit. For instance, if personal growth is a value, what can you identify that you do each week to invest in it? Are you challenging yourself by learning a new skill? Are you setting aside time to learn this skill when you are fresh and energized? Are you spending money on a class or employing the right expert or coach to help you refine your new skill? Taking stock of how your stated values align to how you invest your time, energy, and money can help clarify how effectively you are living your values.

In translating this practice to the workplace, the authors of The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, encourage leaders to write a personal credo. The goal is to bring clarity to what you value and how you express it in the workplace. To begin, imagine you are about to take a six-month sabbatical during which you will have no contact with your work team. You must create a one-page memo to let them know the principles and metrics that you believe should guide their decisions and actions in your absence. What values will you prioritize? List them in rank order. How will your team know if their work is consistent with these values? Identify specific metrics. Detail all of these things for your team to resolve the inevitable conflicts and issues that could arise during your absence. Afterward, if you feel so inclined, you can share the outcome of this exercise with your actual team and encourage them to do the same task to build a sense of shared values.

List your values and allocate the number of hours per day (or week) you spend on them.

Choosing metrics of value alignment may feel unnecessary and difficult at first (for example, how do you tangibly evaluate high-level constructs like honesty?), but metrics are critical tools to assess whether work products and procedures are in line with agreed-upon principles. Falling short in these metrics can be an important signal to individuals that their own values or their organizations’ values are not effectively translating to decisions and behaviors.

Refine your values through regular reevaluation. Leaders who continually pressure-test the alignment between their values and practices will be better equipped to navigate challenging situations. This is particularly important when we consider that values are not always static. Some evolve over time as individuals and organizations experience different conditions and circumstances. When leaders refine and articulate values that fit a specific situation and context, employees are more likely to feel inspired and take actions in line with those values.

Take, for instance, the challenges that have beset Boeing. When a door plug blew off an Alaska Airlines flight just minutes after takeoff in January 2024, questions regarding the quality and safety of Boeing’s 737 Max airplanes resurfaced. After fatal incidents in 2018 and 2019, Boeing leaders were once again facing the grounding of all Max models by the Federal Aviation Administration. One finding has been the misalignment between Boeing’s espoused values of “safety, quality, integrity, and sustainability” as a top priority while using stock price as the most important metric of success. Indeed, investigative reporters have traced back a significant shift in how success is measured at Boeing to the company’s 1997 merger with defense manufacturer McDonnell Douglas. To emerge successfully from its crises, Boeing’s top executives will need to re-create and adapt — within a new context — the value-aligned processes and metrics that brought the company to engineering excellence in the past.

When leaders bring specific values to life, employees can see opportunities to do the same in their own corners of the workplace. For example, Megan Johnson, a nurse and instructor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, and Steve Vinson, DEI program manager for ambulatory care at Michigan Medicine, championed introducing Black hair care products to the hospital system. “When I worked the night shift, I had patients that would tell me, ‘Wake me up at 6:00 so I can get ready for the provider,’ because, to them, their experience was different if they didn’t look a certain way,” Johnson said on a university podcast. Vinson added that the effort he and Johnson put to overcome the administrative hurdles in pursuit of this change — to purchase a supply of Black hair care products instead of depending on staff to share their own with patients — was a way to demonstrate what it means to live the university’s core value of inclusion. “We talk about those values a lot, but this was an example of folks really walking that walk,” he said.

In our own classroom, we have seen a significant increase in the awareness and importance students place on identity-based issues. Our value of inclusion has remained a priority; however, as we adapt to external cultural shocks and changes, how we practice this core principle has evolved. Our efforts to develop and strengthen a psychologically safe and inclusive classroom has required us to renew and refine the language we use, update the teaching examples we provide, and broaden the cohort of practitioners who engage with our students.

As you reevaluate how you prioritize your core values and their corresponding metrics, you should also seek to identify and correct any misalignments. Through refining your understanding of your own values, you can ensure that your decisions remain consistent with your core principles.


Understanding values is not a passive endeavor. It’s an active process that demands introspection, articulation, and ongoing commitment. Core beliefs are the cornerstone of effective leadership, guiding leaders on a path of principled decision-making and purposeful action. By recognizing the features of useful values and adopting practical steps to uncover and uphold them, leaders can harness the full potential of core values to achieve both personal and organizational success.

 

The post "Effective Leaders Articulate Values — and Live by Them" appeared first on MIT Sloan Management Review

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