Authentic Leadership: The Value of Values

In their book True North, George and Sims propose that authentic leaders practice solid values. In this post I want to explore the role of values on the journey that is life and leadership.

At the beginning of 2014 I took the opportunity of a family gathering to talk about the significance of that particular year. It was the second year of a two year change wave that was crashing over us as a family. In seeking to equip us for the year ahead I encouraged us all that one of our priorities should be to be clear about our values and use these to navigate ourselves through the times of change and uncertainty ahead.

Reflecting on my journey as a business leader it strikes me that in both contexts the importance of values in helping individuals and communities to navigate through times of change has been at best underestimated and at worst completely overlooked. In the absence of clear, shared and agreed values individuals and communities are at the mercy of the wind and the waves of change crashing over them and can find themselves pushed out of position and bent out of shape.

In my experience there is a degree of skepticism about the importance of values because they are seen as the stuff of workshops and window dressing. If that’s all they are then I agree they are of little importance. But if they represent the basis on which we will manage ourselves and hold ourselves accountable and the means by which we will steer the ship that is the business we are a part of, then our values truly become our “True North”.

It’s for exactly this reason I believe authentic leaders are the best leaders of change. Authentic leaders provide calm in the storm and safety and security when the winds of change blow and the waves of change roar. They are anchored by their values and as a result become an anchor for those around them. Remaining consistent to who they are and what they stand for even in the most testing of times they bring stability to those they lead. Their words and actions continually pointing the people around them to “True North”.

A lack of clarity of values can cause leaders to look and sound confused and then to become confusing to those around them. I’m reminded of the old adage “to thine own self be true”. The question is true to what? Surely the answer must be true to my values. Values are as the word suggests - valuables. Valuables are things you protect, particularly when under threat. If in the heat of battle you are prepared to surrender your values then at that moment you are placing a higher value on something else. This something else is often fear, often the fear of failure. Authentic leaders remain true to their values even in the face of failure because they understand the greatest failure of all is the failure to stay true to their values.

I plan to let George and Sims have the last word, but before I do, I want to pick up on one of the things they will say and that is in any discussion about authenticity and values, the matter of integrity is not far away. Let me attempt to explain the relationship between authenticity, integrity and values.

Leaders are authentic when the values they espouse are a reflection of who they really are not who they are pretending to be. In other words they don’t wear their values like a set clothes which they take on and off as required, their values are who they are. Leaders demonstrate integrity when the values they espouse are reflected in their everyday behaviour in private and in public, in the company of the lowly and the great. Combining these two ideas of authenticity and integrity the significance of the combination is that authentic integrity means not only am I being consistent but I am consistently being who I really am. In one sense this makes leading easy because I am at no stage having to make the effort to pretend to be something or someone I am not.

It is impossible to overstate the extent to which inconsistency between the words and actions of a leader who is pretending to be someone they are not can undermine not just their authenticity and personal integrity but also create dissonance in the organisation they lead. In extreme cases often seen in the political arena the vibrations caused by this dissonance can cause the organisation to shake itself apart.

Now, as promised, the final word from George and Sims:

Leaders are defined by their values, and values are personal – they cannot be determined by anyone else. Integrity however, is the one value required of every authentic leader. If you do not have integrity, no one will trust you, nor should they. The values of authentic leaders are shaped by their personal beliefs and developed through study, introspection, consultation with others, and years of experience. The test of authentic leaders’ values is not what they say but the values they practice under pressure. If leaders are not true to the values they profess, people quickly lose confidence in their leadership.
Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant