How Leaders Live Their Values

A friend of mine, John March, caught up with me recently to pick my brain about the connection between leadership and values. The topic, which is personal for both of us, led to interesting insights and self-awareness.

I’ve captured a bit of our discussion below to share with you in the hopes that his questions and my answers might also prompt helpful thinking for you about the paths you could take on the journey of leadership.

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JM: When I hear people in leadership talk about what it means to be a good leader, they usually talk about the universal nature of leadership—they’ll say something like, “We are all leaders.” Do you think that’s true? How do you define leadership?

MN: Yes, we are all leaders and we are all followers. I remember my first project as a working professional, long before I had any positional leadership. I followed the advice of a more experienced colleague, who suggested that I work to master a trending technology that was being used on the project. I quickly became the subject matter expert on that technology and was able to provide directional leadership.

I also followed the coaching of another colleague to volunteer for a special “extra-curricular” project at work: organizing a company offsite. This helped me gain visibility across the company and influence our corporate culture. Leadership is influence—hopefully positive.

JM: In your blog, the tagline reads: “Leading as a human being not a human doing.” Can you talk about the difference between these two things—being and doing—and how your values inform this emphasis?

MN: The difference between “being” and “doing” usually comes down to where we derive our self-worth and identity. I’m very tempted to derive my value from what I accomplish. Human flourishing happens, though, when we derive value from who we are more than what we do.

Not long ago, for instance, I found myself self-defined by the monthly performance of our business. I thought, “Boy, I’m good!” Then, a month or two later, our business posted poor performance. I felt anxious and questioned myself. I wondered, “What if I’m actually a failure?”

It was in the midst of that self-doubt that you and I discussed what I really believe about the value of human beings, and why all people have intrinsic, infinite and abiding value. Then I remembered that that is also true about me: I’m not defined by what I do but by who I am. This renewed my confidence and joy about my work.

JM: I know you well enough to know that you have a lot of things on your plate. Are there some practices that you follow regularly to help you lead well from a place of who you are first?

MN: I actually just wrote a post on this topic—how to set boundaries with regard to demands that aren’t important and commit to activities that are important but not urgent. I have a lot of routines that keep me committed to doing things that I’d rather put off in the moment.

Most mornings I follow a pattern: exercise, pray, read the newspaper and connect with my kids. Most weeks I rigorously adhere to blocked time I’ve scheduled for myself for doing client outreach, company strategy work and connection with colleagues. On the weekends, I stick to defined routines for connecting with my family and getting personal tasks accomplished, as well as ensuring that I’m well rested— physically, emotionally and mentally—for the next week.

JM: What are some of the dangers and benefits that come from leadership?

MN: The potential dangers of being a leader at work for me are: self-sufficiency (thinking that I’m in control), emotional fatigue (which leads me to quick-fix reactions), selfish ambition (an over-desire to win and accumulate power) and the anxiety of disappointing people (being “found out” as incapable).

The benefits of leadership for me are: creating order out of chaos (restoring things that are broken in the world), helping people see their intrinsic value (affirming people’s potential and encouraging them in that direction) and being a responsible manager of resources (making decisions to allocate resources with integrity, fairness and long-term value).


How about you? How would you respond to John’s questions? And how do your values inform how you lead?



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