Leaders should know what they stand for

Over the last five years I have deliberately become more clear about my values as a leader.

As a leader, values are what you stand for. If what you value is absent at work, their absence makes work relationships troublesome. Being asked to compromise on them within a workplace would cause stress and conflict. Decisions you've made for yourself, about which you have no regrets, are generally supported by your values. If you're not clear on your values, then I'd strongly recommend you spend the time to get them written down. I'll provide some sources to help.

Understanding myself made it possible to become a better leader within Rackspace, and I later found that list of values to be a powerful discriminator when evaluating future employers. During a job search, it is helpful to test how your values fit with the culture of a prospective employer. You should specifically look for culture-values fit during a search. Some interviewers will ask you about how you lead and what matters to you. So, knowing your values lets you answer these questions.

Once in the seat, knowing your personal values allows you to lead more authentically. Authentic, centred leadership has been shown to make you more effective.

Knowing your own values gets you to base camp. It will take you some time. This organised list of 200 values will give you an idea of what they might be. Scott Jeffrey also has a free, albeit somewhat hippy, guide to help identify your values and WikiHow has a good one with diagrams.

The final outcome of self-reflection on this needs to be a short list of the most important values. It isn't helpful to list everything you care about, because it'll be too broad. You'll be talking about humanity in general, rather than you specifically.

So how about culture and beliefs? If you've dealt with Amazon Web Services, you're likely aware of their leadership principles. It's well known that Amazon and AWS have their principles at the heart of their organisational culture. Here's a great book I've read about them. Netflix has documented its culture quite deeply too. They're both remarkable companies, so are undoubtedly worth studying. A moment of googling will find articles such as a list of beliefs you could adopt to become a more effective leader.

They're all helpful inspiration, however you really should look inward to work out what's already there and what's most important to you.

AWS, Rackspace and Netflix articles about their culture might give you some ideas, whether they are called leadership principles or core values, but you must read them in context. An organisation's defined "core values" are different to a person's values. Organisational culture could encompasses values (like trust, winning or autonomy), plus decision-making behaviours (like bias for action), plus positions on which stakeholders matter the most (customers or employees), plus preferred ways of thinking (AWS "think big").

My personal values

So, to make this real, I'll tell you my personal values: authenticity, transparency, autonomy, trust, quality, achievement and collaboration.

Given I talk about these a lot, to save me from missing any, I put them in conceptual bundles with the mnemonic AT-AT-QAC. Why? As a leader, I think it's important that people can quickly learn who you are, so I explicitly talk about my values as a way of introducing myself to a team. The mnemonic helps me remember them all in those otherwise unscripted interactions, and even has a built-in Star Wars reference.

Declaring these to a team works for me also because one of my key values is authenticity. Being authentic means simply being myself, which in turn requires knowing myself and therefore, telling people who I am is authentic. A warning though: talking about your values is like wearing them on your sleeve, which can trigger cynicism. So, don't do this unless you are certain you do live by those values. Don't become a hypocrite.

My AT-AT bundle of authenticity, transparency, autonomy and trust all interplay with one another. I like to be transparent with my managers about my thinking on a problem even if it effects them, I expect my boss to be direct and open with me, to give me autonomy and then to trust me to take care of things. Ben Horowitz wrote about transparency and the importance of honesty when you have bad news to share. He argues that a CEO needs to be trusted to be effective, so should frame bad news into context and give it meaning, and that 'happy talk' undermines trust.

Trust is a big topic on its own. With managers, I trust and verify. I give trust, rather than people having to earn it first. That's how I tick, and not necessarily right for all roles. I wouldn't expect my financial auditor to start by trusting people.

Paul Zak found that "Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies." HBR, 2017. So, whilst trust matters to me as a personal value, it has also been found to create value.

I won't go into detail on the rest of my values or why they matter to me, because this is an article for you.

Your values

I have kept an Evernote entry of my thoughts on my own values for about five years. You should start now, if you haven't already, and keep on coming back to that list of values, continually refining your understanding of yourself. I review and refine these notes.

If you are already clear on your values, have you written them down? If you've written them down, have you reviewed them recently? Have you tested how consistently you live them by checking whether your espoused values show up in feedback about you? Have you talked to your managers about discovering their own values?

Further reading

I have read and curated great articles about value-based leadership for about 15 years. Here are a few great and recent pieces to read:

Related to technology leadership, it has been found that successful digital transformation also requires an aligned culture. MIT found that "...although digital strategies differ by industry and circumstance, the cultures of digitally progressive companies share important characteristics: They engage in rapid experimentation, take risks, invest in their own talent, and value soft skills in leaders more than they do technical prowess." This is from Aligning the organisation for its digital future, MIT Sloan 2016