skip to Main Content

Positive Leadership: The Remarkable Role of Personal Values

A story of courage and living up to the highest personal standards

From a blog by Schon Beechler, Ph.D.
Academic Director, MBA Programme and Senior Affiliate Professor, Organisational Behaviour

INSEAD Business School

How often does this happen to you? You make a difficult decision only later to lament that you wished you hadn’t because it did not feel right?  How can we keep that from happening so often?

Usually when my gut doesn’t feel right after making a decision, I (later) realize that I have unknowingly violated one of my important values. One foundation of ethical, authentic leadership is that leaders are firmly grounded in their values, they are aware of their values, and they practice them in their day to day lives. But what does this mean for you?

The Value of Values

Some years ago, my colleague, Manny Elkind, came to me with a proposal to try a pilot on leadership values as part of the Senior Executive Program at the Graduate Business School I was directing at the time. Given the headlines about Enron and other illegal and unethical behavior at top companies, I agreed we needed to explore values head-on. Along with a group of interested participants, I joined the pilot project and explored my values with Manny in the context of work. I discovered that what brought me satisfaction and joy was not what I thought it was – and explained why even when getting the things I thought I wanted, I still wasn’t satisfied!

After clarifying my values with Manny, I started to live my life in a different way, making more decisions based on what I really believed in and what I was really looking for from work. For example, five years ago I decided to leave my employer of 17 years because my most important values were not being met. As I was trying to decide which of three great job offers to accept, I wrote down my values and the degree to which I thought I could get each one satisfied in each of the new positions. That exercise helped me decide which job to choose and continues to inform my choices concerning what work I will and will not take on.

Since our initial pilot, over a thousand executives around the world in that program have had similar experiences and Manny continues to help leaders ground their day-to-day decisions and behaviors in their most important standards and principles. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet up with one of these executives again while on an international business trip.

Finding the Courage to Truly Be a Leader

A few years ago, Michael, a senior executive at a large well-known company, went through a values session with Manny.  At the time, Michael was wrestling with a very tough personal dilemma. He discovered that a number of the senior managers at his company were engaged in unethical and fraudulent and illegal activities. The CEO wasn’t involved but, according to Michael, he didn’t want to know about the issues that would ‘rock the company to the core.’  The executives were comfortable earning the big bucks and satisfied to perpetuate mediocrity and close a blind eye to the things which went against all the values and policies the company had spent millions of dollars creating. They all appeared to do the right thing but in reality only gave it lip service in its implementation.  Profit was placed before people and values.

Michael was struggling because he had tried to stop the activities but so far had failed and was warned that he would be fired if he continued. In exploring his values with Manny, Michael realized that three of his most important values – integrity, justice and inner peace – were being so completely violated in the situation that he could not accept what was happening.

He returned home with new self-knowledge and conviction of what he needed to do. Unfortunately, Michael was fired for his actions but was still able to bring the problems at the company to light and was instrumental in getting the top management team removed from the company. Despite being jobless, he wrote to Manny a few months later, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but I know I have never been happier.”

When I saw him a few weeks ago, he updated his story and reiterated that if he had to do it all over again, he would – despite the considerable economic hardships and physical threats that he and his young family had to endure.

Understanding his values was an important step for Michael and helped give him the strength and conviction to exercise his leadership in ways that he might not have had the courage to do in the past. He re-wrote his life story as an active participant, not a powerless bystander.

Although Michael was fired, his is not a story about being fired. His is a story of courage, of living up to the highest standards of integrity, justice, and inner peace – his most important values. For Michael, a crisis did not translate into a crisis of leadership but an opportunity to live his values and truly exercise leadership.

Today Manny called to tell me that Michael was just offered his “dream job” as CEO of a global company.

What do you take away from this story?

What can we do to help people have the courage to actually live their highest values?