Leadership is about Values, Not Right vs Wrong

We've all heard the phrase that leaders have a moral compass. Or that managers do things right, while leaders do what's right. Or that leaders have the courage to stand up for what's just in the face of adversity.

The flaw with these statements is that it plots a false belief that we live in a binary environment of Right vs Wrong. That there is a way. And if a supervisor, or influential person, or teacher, or mentor, or coach, or authority figure moves in the direction in that sense of righteousness, s/he is a leader. To us. Or to me.

I'm just not buying that definition of leadership anymore.

We, as individuals, move according to our highly personal values, beliefs, and priorities. They guide our decisions - big and small. Who we marry - and why. Where we live - and why. How we vote - and why. What we do for a career - and why.  What crusades we fight - and why. 

I'd bet you are heavily influenced into choosing your answers and intentional behaviors by a confidence or faith they are in harmony with your personal values, beliefs, and priorities. Otherwise, why the heck would you make that decision?

Saying that one political party (or advocacy group, or team, or industry) has a leader, and the others one do not, ignores the impact that values, beliefs, and priorities play in our view of who we deem a leader. We  band together with those whose compass needles align with our own.

And in many of issues we face in our lives, our work, our families...we aren't limited to two ends of the spectrum. Many of our situations present a multitude of options, alternatives, branches, decisions. This is a far stretch from Right versus Wrong. And many of them don't factor in ethics or morals at all!

If I shared the same values, beliefs, and priorities as Adolf Hitler, I'd consider him a great leader. ( I happen to not share those with him. But that's kinda the point....IF.) What about Donald Trump? Or Barrack Obama. Or Jesus. Or David Koresh. Or Theresa May. Or Steve Jobs. Or Colin Kaepernick. Or Osama bin Laden. Or Coach K. Or Jefferson Davis. Or Genghis Khan. Or the Pope. Your personal values might not harmonize with these folks (and the list is pretty impossible for anyone to find harmony among them all!), but can we rightly discount each of their abilities to garner support, discipleship, and movement in a shared agenda?

More intimately, consider the folks in your industry, office, sports team, charitable group, place of worship. Who is a leader? And why? Is it because you share their values, beliefs, and priorities? What about those you despise? And why? Is there a disconnect or conflict with values, beliefs, and priorities? (I know you can all think of that one person whose main priority at work is to be promoted...no matter the cost!)

Leaders stoke the fire of a vision. They build upon a set of values and priorities. They highlight the consistencies and harmony. They may even get you to challenge your own values and priorities...and re-calibrate your own compass to align with a new direction, hope, or future.

They can get us to change. And that's huge.

My challenge is this:

Instead of looking at leadership being dependent upon some intrinsic sense of righteousness, let's look at a person's influence based on values - whether we share them or not.  I even argue that we have more to learn about straight-up leadership from those influential people with whom we disagree!

Consider those in your life who have nudged your compass needle to set down a new path, in a new direction. How did they do it? Why did they do it? Why did you listen?

There are leaders moving in all directions. Some directions are at complete odds with our own sense of purpose or meaning. Which set of values, beliefs, and priorities guide you in your journey?

Who do you allow to challenge your compass? Why? Can we even articulate something as complex as that?


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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