“WHO ARE YOU?” This is the first question your constituents want you to answer for them. Your leadership journey begins when you set out to find the answer and are able to express it. For Sumaya Shakir, IT strategy director at Amtrak, this is where, at a previous company, her Personal-Best Leadership Experience began.
The first time she engaged with her team, Sumaya told us, she found people were hostile and combative. She was taken aback by their lack of respect. It was not the kind of reception that she expected. Instead of being deterred by their reaction, however, she resolved to break the barriers that made the team dysfunctional and transform it into a collaborative star team. She understood that the place to start was not so much with them as it was with her. She told us how she had to determine what was important to her and why:
I had to question myself about what I stood for, what was important to me, what approaches I was going to follow, what I was going to communicate, and what my expectations were. I had to know and believe first within myself. There were so many things that came into my mind all at once, but I had to focus on the core values I wanted to represent.
Sumaya put together a checklist of basic guiding principles and shared her values with each of her teammates. Instead of telling everyone what she wanted out of them, she stated clearly what values she held and what performance criteria she demanded of herself every day. She openly communicated her values, in her own words, and provided her team with a vivid understanding of what kind of person she was and what they could expect from her. By sharing and explaining her values, people were better prepared to understand the reasoning behind her actions and decisions. Knowing what she stood for, and why, made it possible, Sumaya found, for others to explore their own values and make them transparent to their teammates. As a result, she said, “We were able to build a set of shared values that enabled the team to work together effectively.”
The Personal-Best Leadership Experience cases we've collected are, at their core, the stories of individuals, like Sumaya, who were clear about their personal values and understood how this gave them the courage to navigate difficult situations and make tough choices. People expect their leaders to speak out on matters of values and conscience. To speak out, however, you have to have something to speak about. To stand up for your beliefs, you have to know the beliefs you stand for. To walk the talk, you have to have a talk to walk. To do what you say, you have to know what you want to say.
You have to make a commitment to Clarify Values. In beginning your leadership journey, it's essential that you:
- Find your voice
- Affirm shared values
Becoming an exemplary leader requires you to fully comprehend the deeply held values—the beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals—that drive you. You have to freely, and honestly, choose those principles you will use to guide your decisions and actions. You have to express your authentic self, genuinely communicating your beliefs in ways that uniquely represent who you are.
What's more, you have to realize that leaders aren't just speaking for themselves when they talk about the values that guide their actions and decisions. When leaders passionately express a commitment to quality, innovation, service, or some other core value, they aren't just saying, “I believe in this.” They're also making a commitment on behalf of an entire organization. They're saying, “We all believe in this.” Therefore, leaders must not only be clear about their personal guiding principles, but they must also make sure that there's agreement on a set of shared values among everyone they lead. Furthermore, they must hold others accountable to those values and standards.
Find Your Voice
What would you say if someone were to ask you, “What is your leadership philosophy?” Are you prepared right now to say what your leadership philosophy is? If you aren't, you should be. If you are, you need to reaffirm it on a daily basis.
Before you can become a credible leader—one who connects “what you say” with “what you do”—you first have to find your authentic voice, the most genuine expression of who you are. If you don't find your voice, you'll end up with a vocabulary that belongs to someone else, mouthing words written by some speechwriter or mimicking the language of some other leader who is nothing like you at all. If the words you speak are not your words but someone else's, you will not, in the long term, be able to be consistent in word and deed. You will not have the integrity to lead.
This was the most valuable lesson that Michael Janis, director of strategic marketing at Agilent Technologies, realized from reflecting upon his leadership journey. “After searching, seeking, and copying the behaviors of leaders in the hopes that I would somehow magically acquire their strengths, their talents—finding success and exhaustion in the process,” he explained, “I've found that the real strength and talent in leadership comes from me, who I am.” Identifying personal values will help you, as it did Michael, to define your leadership philosophy.
Perhaps you believe that nobody really cares about your voice. Think again, because this critical comment from one financial analyst is typical of what so many people reported about their supervisors:
When leaders do not understand their own personal leadership philosophy, their communication and actions can be confusing. Furthermore, if their leadership philosophy is not clear, that person's team will not know what values and beliefs should guide their actions when encountering daily challenges. This confusion will lead to low levels of team commitment, as people aren't able to either identify with or support the leader's values.
To find your voice, you have to discover what you care about, what defines you, and what makes you who you are. You have to explore your inner self. You can only be authentic when you lead according to the principles that matter most to you. Otherwise, you're just putting on an act. Ivar Kroghrud, the chief strategist at QuestBack, has taken this a step further by creating a one-page “user manual” so that people can understand his values. He reports that the reaction has been “100 percent positive.” By opening himself up in this manner, Ivar finds that it just makes others open up as well, getting to know one another right from the start, avoiding typical misunderstandings and conflicts.1
When you fail to express your leadership philosophy in word and deed, you weaken your own and your team's engagement and effectiveness. When we ask leaders if they are clear about their leadership philosophy, those who rate themselves among the top 20 percent on this leadership behavior have entirely different work attitudes from their counterparts in the bottom 20 percent. Their scores on variables like pride in their organization, commitment to the organization's success, willingness to work hard, and overall effectiveness are more than 110 percent higher than those who report they are not very clear about their leadership philosophy.
Moreover, the results from their direct reports are equally dramatic. Those who rate their leaders among the top 20 percent on clarity of their leadership philosophy have significantly more favorable feelings about their workplace than those whose leaders were ranked among the bottom 20 percent. For example, their responses on some specific dimensions are:
- 130 percent higher on “feel a strong sense of team spirit”
- 122 percent higher on “proud to tell others I work for this organization”
- 126 percent higher on “clear about what is expected of me”
- 115 percent higher on “willingness to work harder and for longer hours if the job demanded it”
- 135 percent higher on “trust management”
- 122 percent higher in “feeling like I am making a difference”
The evidence is clear: to be the most effective, every leader must learn to find the voice that represents who he or she is. Responses to the question of how strongly direct reports agree or disagree that “overall, my supervisor is an effective leader” provide undeniable proof that being clear about who you are and what you stand for is essential. Those who rate their leaders in the top 20 percent on being clear about their leadership philosophy evaluate these leaders as nearly 140 percent more effective than those leaders rated by their direct reports in the bottom 20 percent on this critical leadership behavior.
This data underscores what one frontline supervisor told us he desperately wished his manager would do:
By looking within and understanding what values and beliefs are most important to him, my manager would be able to share these with our team using his own words and messaging. Clarifying his leadership philosophy would help our team identify with and support the values and beliefs that comprise my manager's leadership style. Furthermore, by having a leadership style that is truly his own and not someone else's, his actions would align with the beliefs and values he shares. My manager would be able to build consensus around the leadership philosophy.
He needs to elicit feedback from the team on what values and beliefs are collectively most important to us. By doing this, my manager would be building unity in the team rather than forcing his poorly conceived and ill-considered philosophy upon us. Having the entire team support the philosophy would ensure consistency in the team's work and maintain credibility within our organization.
It's for these reasons that the leadership developm...