Values Based Leadership

There are many different leadership models and theories that we all know and love, spanning the decades from the early days of ‘Great Man’ theory to more recent ‘Transformational” approaches. However, regardless of the label you want to put on the theory or model that is prevalent at the time, there is one common thread that runs through whether or not the leader will actually be effective in practice. Quite simply, if the leader is not being authentic and working from a base of core agreed values then they will simply be going through the motions.

Values-based leadership has emerged over recent years where the focus is firmly on the behaviour of the leader. So why should this be of particular interest and relevance today? Well, let’s stop for a moment and reflect on the past few years … consider the issues that have emerged surrounding the leadership behaviour in some of our established organisations, such as the worldwide banking industry, the press, media and newspaper incidents that triggered the Leveson Inquiry in the UK and more recently the UK vote to leave the European Union resulting in the resignation of many of its most senior political leaders. In a time when public confidence is low and financial austerity measures are biting in all sectors of the community, it should come as no surprise that leaders are being put under the spotlight and questions are being asked about the level of trust we should place in them.

Two of the UK’s leading professional bodies, The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have both published extensive research around the theme of ‘trust’ and have linked this firmly to the need for more values-based leadership to be demonstrated in both public and private sector organisations. In addition, academic research has linked the implementation of authentic leadership practice to organisational performance and three key outcomes, namely employee engagement, well-being and trust. All three are particularly relevant in a climate where staff morale and motivation are at an all time low, where the incidence of work-related stress is increasing and where many employees remain concerned about their future prospects and security in the workplace.

Authentic leadership is one of the strands emerging from the development of values-based theories. This is an interesting concept because it takes the emphasis away from a defined set of characteristics or traits that a leader is expected to exhibit and puts an awareness and understanding of behaviour at the centre of leadership practice. In other words, authentic leadership is not a new model or theory but is a particular way of behaving that develops an effective leadership dynamic. It also acknowledges the leader-follower relationship and brings the contributory nature and influence of follower perceptions and behaviours into the equation for leadership to be effective.

So what would it look like in practice? Well, authentic leadership is based on a simple practical premise that stems from three core stages of development that an individual works through as they navigate their journey to effective leadership.

(1) An authentic leader will have a high degree of self-awareness (challenge)

In order to be authentic, a leader needs to fully understand both themself and the impact of their behaviour and actions on others. They need to have a strong sense of their own beliefs and values, and know how these will affect their decisions and the subsequent actions they take. I am not talking about undertaking extensive navel-gazing and constantly disappearing to ‘find yourself’ but about challenging your own patterns of behaviour and the outcomes you achieve as a result. It is only through focused self-evaluation that you will begin to recognise and be more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, and then be in a position top work with them.

(2) An authentic leader will have strong self-regulation (choice) 

One of the hallmarks of effective leadership is the ability to stop and stand back from any situation in order to assess it and process the available options before taking action. Too often, leaders simply wade in and do what they have always done, or react by doing what they have seen someone else do in a similar situation, and are surprised when they don’t get the results they want. Self-regulation is about the ability to remain calm under pressure, to weigh up different possible responses and to then choose the most appropriate response for the situation in hand. The most effective leaders have a repertoire of behaviour that they can draw on and they will make a conscious considered choice of how they are going to respond.

(3) An authentic leader will adapt and modify their behaviour to form a positive psychological contract with followers and get the best outcome in every situation (change)

The most effective leaders have the capacity to be consistently flexible in their behaviour. By this I mean that they will recognise and understand the motivators and fears of their employees and will therefore know the best way to approach and work with them to gain their trust and engagement. I have seen too many individuals trying to lead by ‘their way’ of doing things and then expecting everyone else to fit in accordingly – this simply doesn’t work! A leader will only be effective when people choose to follow them. It is therefore fundamental that a leader has the ability to connect with people at an emotional level and subsequently form a psychological contract with their followers. This doesn’t mean that they need to be ‘touchy feely’ or that they become an ‘agony aunt’ for everyone else’s problems. Quite the contrary – today’s leaders need to be experts in emotional intelligence, practitioners in the art of persuasion and masters of motiavation. No matter how tactically brilliant you are, or how inspired your decisions are, you will not be truly effective as a leader unless people to follow you.

So to summarise, values-based leadership (and authentic leadership in particular) clearly has an important role to play in the future development and recovery of both business and public service markets. A new breed of leader will be needed to grasp the challenges presented by continuing employee disengagement and mistrust, and this will require a much sharper focus on the way a leader thinks and behaves. This is going to require managers to step up to the mark and existing leaders to reflect on their current practice. After all, if there are no willing followers then there will be no future leaders … we need some challenge choice change!

  • CHALLENGE — what do you do and how is it working for you and for others around you?
  • CHOICE — make a conscious choice to behave in a particular way rather than typically reacting to the emotion of the situation.
  • CHANGE — be consistently flexible and adapt your own behaviour and response to get the best out of others.