Authentic Leadership – Five Steps to Define Your Values

What are the best qualities or traits a leader ought to possess? I often ask this of groups looking at leadership issues. They respond that leaders should be great communicators and trustworthy. And without fail, people want to work for leaders who are authentic and genuine.  People trust and respect leaders whom they feel they know.

It stands to reason that leaders want to be recognized as “real people” however in order to achieve this you must first know yourself.

Do you know who you are as a person and a leader?  The best place to start is to examine your values.  “Do you mean my work or my personal values?” asked one executive during a coaching session. If you live by two different sets of values, one that you put on like a suit jacket for Monday to Friday 9-5 and another that kicks in when you drive into the garage at home, you are struggling with a bit of a (non-clinical) split personality.  Though your values may manifest themselves in different ways across multiple settings they ought to remain fundamentally the same.

What do I mean by your values?  I have heard them referred to as a signpost, pointing you in the right direction.  Others have called them a foundation, a touchstone, a light in the dark.  Your values serve as your fundamental set of beliefs. They help determine your priorities; they define how you do what you do.  Leaders who know their values have a means to weigh decisions and a greater understanding of the big picture.

Once you have your list of values, memorize them.

To strengthen your leadership spend some time defining your values.  Then revisit this every so often.  Our values are not set in stone, locked in place for all time.  Changing life circumstances, including family dynamics and age, can cause our values to shift.  What might be very important to you at 25 (e.g., valuing hard work and wealth above all else) may shift at a later stage of your career (e.g., creating a legacy, respect of peers).

Here’s an easy method to determine your core values. You’ll likely want to list at least 3 but no more than 7.  Any less than that and we’re limiting the scope of our values; any more and most of us will struggle to remember and apply them daily.  The Internet has many sites where you can find lists of value words to help prompt you.  I particularly like Barrie Davenport’s List of Values.  400 values offers you ample opportunity to find the words that will resonate most clearly with you. There are other sites should this list seem too daunting.  Then follow these steps:

Step 1.

Once you have a set of value words, quickly read through them, checking any that stand out as important, crossing off any that don’t feel like a fit. This should be rapid, based more on gut instinct than deep thinking.

Step 2.

Repeat the first step, this time putting each value word you have checked off into one of three categories: very important to me, important to me, not important to me.

Step 3.

Review the values in the categories of “very important” and “important”. If any do not resonate with you, toss them out.  If some words can be rolled into one value (e.g., trust, honesty, commitment, and integrity all may fit under the word respect) find the word that fits best.

Step 4.

You need to get to 3-7 values. You may want to reflect on the larger list, come back to it over a few days, journal about it. Spend some time noticing what values you actually live on a regular basis or talk to others about the process.  Keep working at it until you have a list you can live by.

Step 5.

This last step is optional: for some it is helpful to rank your values. Think about whether or not that would serve you.

Once you have your list of values, memorize them.Regularly check in about how you’re doing when it comes to living them.  If you’ve put down honesty as a value and you decide to call in sick when in fact you just need a mental health day, it is up to you to decide what that means for you.  Likewise, if you feel respect is important , you may hold back before getting angry at the person who cut you off in traffic.

Living according to your values allows you to behave intentionally and consistently. Your direct reports, colleagues, and leaders will see you as genuine and authentic. And that is where most leaders want to land. It helps out in your personal life too! Consistent values build strength in your leadership.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our resources page. 


Lana Dunn

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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