In any situation leaders’ actions can be informed by only one of two things: by their needs or by their values. When leaders act on the basis of their needs, they are essentially putting their self-interest first. When they behave on the basis of their values, they are putting their self-interest second, they are suspending their own agenda for what is appropriate or right.
Whether leaders are needs- or values-driven does not happen by accident. Leaders will be needs-driven, they will default to their own needs, unless they consciously choose otherwise. They will do what is expedient or convenient unless they deliberately forego their needs to do the appropriate or right thing.
That leaders are primarily values- rather than needs-driven is of paramount importance.
Firstly, when those in authority in organisations compromise on what is the right thing to do in order to confirm their own interests, this becomes immediately apparent to their people. They instantly conclude that their management is self-serving, and as such cannot be trusted. Conversely, when management contradicts their self-interest in order to do the right thing, they are experienced as sincere. Their people see them as values- rather than needs-driven and therefore trust them.
Secondly the choice that leaders make to put values first sets the example for those down the line to follow. When those at the top do the right thing, those down the line follow suit. When those at the top pursue their own interests, they cultivate the conditions whereby everybody is in it for themselves and, inevitably, values are compromised.
For leaders to act appropriately and do the right thing in any situation requires them to see what the appropriate thing is to do and then to behave accordingly. Understanding what the right thing is to do in the situation is an ability issue. Actually doing the right thing, however, is a matter of the will.
Sometimes what the right thing to do is, is blindingly obvious. In many instances, however, this is not the case. There are situations in the work context, and more broadly in life, which are complex and ambiguous. These situations are ones in which making the right call requires good judgement because ‘the answer’ does not descend on tablets of stone from on high.
Fortunately, judgement is a skill which can be learned through leaders engaging in vigorous debate with other leaders in the organisation about what the right thing to do is. With enough discussion and debate it is possible for leaders in an organisation to calibrate their views and become aligned with each other in terms of the moral decisions facing them. Then, and only then, will they be seen by their people to have integrity.
What enables leaders to choose to do the right thing, to act on their understanding of what the right thing to do is, is the following.
Firstly, doing the right thing needs to be personified by those at the top of the organisation. When those at the top evidence the company’s values in their daily behaviour and practice, they exponentially increase the likelihood of the values being embodied by others.
Secondly, people need to be held accountable for living the values. There must be positive consequences for those who act consistently with the organisation’s values, and negative consequences for those who do not.
People who deliberately contravene the values, irrespective of how good their results, should not only be censured but disciplined up to and including dismissal for doing so.
Unless there are consequences, both positive and negative, values-driven behaviour will never take precedence over expediency in organisations – no matter how many values workshops people attend.