Imparting one’s values to others and judging them based on their values has the potential to create a culture of self-righteousness and legalism. Mark Twain alluded to this when he described some people as “good in the worst sense of the word.” Don’t get us wrong, great leaders impart their values to others and judge others by their values. Herein lies the paradox. Some leaders who do this fail to develop what is arguably the most important character value: humility.
Humility is not easily developed when you have wealth, power and/or status. It’s especially difficult to develop humility without the help of others. Values such as work ethic, excellence and open-mindedness can be cultivated with practice. Not so with humility.
Humility develops in several ways. We absorb humility from being around family and friends who are humble. Humility also tends to come to those who experience adversity and suffering at some point in their lives. The Bible says suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. It is full of stories about individuals whose suffering made them humbler, wiser, more patient and determined.
Some of our favorite books deal with this topic. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes about his struggles with depression and how it helped him find his calling as a writer and thought leader. In Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, we see how Abraham Lincoln’s suffering from depression throughout his adult life developed humility and determination. In The Upside of Adversity, Os Hillman writes about how suffering from divorce and financial struggles shaped him in positive ways. Jim Collins described the humility of Level 5 leaders in Good to Great and how it often came as the result of a life threatening event or religious experience. I (Michael) wrote about how my wife's battles with breast and advanced ovarian cancer changed me in Alone No Longer.
Suffering reduces pride and develops humility when we hit a point in our lives that we are unable to make it on our own and as a result turn to God, and to our family and friends to help us persevere. It’s no coincidence that admitting one’s weakness, seeking a higher power and the support of others are key elements in successful 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Adversity and suffering force us to connect. As a result of experiencing suffering and having to persevere, we become humbler, kinder, more merciful and forgiving. These character values make us better at remaining connected with God and with the people in our lives.
Notice too that individuals who experience suffering and adversity often develop a groundedness that you sense when you’re around them. They typically have the moral confidence that influences others and they do so in a loving, patient way rather than forcing their values upon others.
In summary, imparting one’s values is wise so long as it comes from a spirit of humility. Staying connected with God, family and friends who help us grow in character keeps us humble so that we have greater influence on the values of those around us.
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Michael Lee Stallard and Jason Pankau are the co-authors of Fired Up or Burned Out. They speak and teach workshops on leadership, employee engagement, productivity and innovation at business organizations, social sector organizations, churches and universities. For additional information see www.michaelleestallard.com (and for churches see www.lifespringnetwork.org).
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How do you impart values to the people you are responsible for leading, including your children? Recently I had the opportunity to watch a leader who does this well. I’d like to share three critical actions that I believe are necessary to impart your values and I think you will be inspired by and learn from his example.
1. Communicate Your Values, Upfront and Often
Leaders need to lead courageously by telling people what they believe. Ted (not his real name) has developed a small, pocket-sized, laminated card that describes his values and has given the card to all of the employees of his company. The contents on the card define what behavior Ted expects of himself and of the people he is responsible for leading. Each morning a one-page sheet entitled “Connect” is circulated throughout Ted’s company that includes a story about employees living out one of the values. Work groups meet briefly each morning to review the Connect sheet.
One morning I attended a session that Ted holds each week with his leadership team and a select number of potential leaders. There were about 30 people in attendance. Ted stood upfront where he spoke and facilitated the session. During the time the group discussed one chapter in a leadership book they were reading together. About one-third of the 60-90 minutes session is set aside for small group deliberations. The material they covered the day of my visit was on the value that is most important to Ted: caring about people. Studying great books is an ideal way to learn and grow, and to bring the team together. This shared practice also helps maintain awareness of and reinforce the importance of Ted’s values.
2. Live Your Values Daily
It is said that values are caught not taught. I don’t agree. Values are taught and caught. Both are critical.
Living your values each and every day enables the “caught” part. When a leader behaves in ways that are consistent with his or her values, it consciously and subconsciously reinforces those values.
Recent findings from neuroscience suggest that people subconsciously absorb the values of the social environment they live in. When our oldest daughter was in elementary school we came up with an innocent sounding phrase she could use on the phone with us that would signal that all was not well where she was. If she asked, “How is Piper doing?” that was code for “come get me, I don’t feel safe here.” The few times she used that phrase about our dog we learned there was aggressive and disrespectful behavior in those homes that bothered her. In our family we believe disagreement is healthy but only when it is expressed with respect. Neuroscience tells us that the social environment of our home formed a web of neural connections in her brain so that stimulus of a different social environment at odds with what she typically experienced made her feel uncomfortable.
This occurs in work environments too. Workplace behavior that brings about a positive, cooperative, productive environment becomes habitual so that toxic and unproductive behavior feels uncomfortable and invites corrective action to eliminate the source of discomfort. The opposite is also true. When an unproductive, toxic environment becomes the norm, people who behave with civility are viewed as naïve and weak and oftentimes treated as threats to be eliminated.
The “taught” part of imparting values cannot be left out of the equation. Like Ted and the card he gives to his employees, I encourage you to regularly find ways to communicate to your children and even to other children in your circle of influence about character and virtue. Write expressions that reflect your values on a white board in your kitchen for everyone to see. What expressions might you write? Here are a few to consider: “a life not lived for others is a life not lived,” “failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and “there is wisdom in many advisors.” Read books and watch movies together that reinforce what you believe and point out behavior that is at odds with your values.
Ted told me about a practice he has adopted that I find worth emulating. When he reads a book that influences his values, he purchases three more copies, one for each of his young sons. In each, he writes a note to his son describing what the book meant to him. When the boys are old enough to read these books he plans to pay them to read each one and write about what the book meant to them. Great idea. I’m already making a list of books to buy for my daughters.
3. Get Help from Your Friends
This is where the majority of leaders fall short. They fail to live the values they espouse (i.e. they fail to “walk the talk”).
We all have blind spots, i.e. our words and deeds are inconsistent with our espoused values. It’s the human condition. Recently it’s been referred to as the “knowing-doing gap.” Failing to recognize and address blind spots is to sabotage one’s career and success in life. We need people in our lives who know our values and who will call us out when we are not living them. I’m convinced that the remarkable reign of Queen Elizabeth I during England’s Golden Age is in no small measure due to the advice she received from her trusted, faithful and wise advisor Cecil. Likewise, the disappointment of Frederick the Great’s reign was in part because he had no such trusted advisor.
Do you have “trusted friends” in your life? If not, identify three people whom you trust and respect and who care for you, call them up and set up a time to meet with each of them. Share this blog post with them and ask if they would help you live out your values.
Ted, like all great leaders, has what I refer to as moral courage. In other words, through the influence of his parents, seeking wisdom, reflecting on his life and reading about the experiences of others, Ted has developed the courage of his convictions. In Ted’s case, his convictions are values that he imparts with confidence to his family, company and community. And because the values he imparts are time-tested values that help people thrive individually and collectively, the people Ted influences over the course of his life are all the better for it.
If you believe someone would enjoy and benefit from this post, please share it. Just click on the + Share button and you will see lots of options for sharing it with friends including email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners, provides insights about leadership training, team building, communications and executive coaching. E Pluribus Partners focuses on results-driven initiatives that maximize employee engagement, employee retention, employee productivity, innovation and profitability.
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