You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles

I was recently reviewing some job descriptions for management roles and realized that something is missing. I then went and searched some job advertisements for managerial roles and again one critical aspect was missing. They all talked about the duties, technical aspects of the job, even sprinkled a bit of stuff about communication and collaboration. It was all about what to do. What stroked me was a total absence of how the job should be done. There was nothing about core values the manager should have principles he or she should follow and believe in. When you think about it, these are the basics. How can you expect to fill a role in organization if you don’t understand what core values of that organization are and whether they align with yours? How can you sign up for a job if you don’t understand the basic principles that govern anything that is happening at the company?

Core values

What are core values? You can find numerous definitions but I would subscribe to this one. Core values are a set of the fundamental beliefs of a person or an organization. They define the organization and answer the question “How do we do business here? What is important to us?” They define the person and answer the question “Who am I? What is important to me?”

The core values are North Star that will guide the organization or individual in the times of change. Strategy may change, product portfolio may change, people on the team may change, but the core values are stable. They help to decide what is right and what is wrong, they help to guide day to day decisions, they set basic rules of how we work together and get things done. They also create a great opportunity to distinguish the company from its competitors.

Unfortunately, too many companies use the values only because they were told it is a good idea to have some. They would put together a common set like honesty, openness, teamwork, hard-work and print it on the walls without giving it any meaning and without even trying to live by them. Too bad. When you use the core values right, they can be a powerful force to move your business forward. The more “weird” description of values you come up with, the better as you will remove the stigma of “corporate speak” and they will also force you to work with them regularly to keep explaining what they mean in everyday life of every individual.

When I started at my current company there was one word repeated to me on every single presentation, every single meeting, and every single interaction I would have with senior management. “Daily!” It was never described as a core value but it was very clear that everything what’s going on in the company, every decision, and the way we run business is influenced by this one word. It was the competitive advantage we built into the culture that forced the team to act differently from the “old and tired” competitors with long delivery and sales cycles or slow customer support. It showed me how powerful core values can be when they are truly lived by everyone in the organization.

The same goes to individuals. If you want to lead others, you need to have a set of core values that define your actions and that are understandable to others around you. In ideal situation most of these values should have some counterparts in the company values. At worst, they shouldn’t clash. If they do, you are not in the right job and the right company. To figure out what your personal core values are I would suggest you go through some of the tips I described in The Ultimate Question Of Life, The Universe And Everything.

Aspirational Values

How do you come up with core values for your company? Do you create a survey, ask everyone what they believe the values should be and then ask HR to collect it and print out a nice list? Wrong. The core values need to support the business you are trying to build and run. They very often reflect beliefs of the founders or the relatively small number of executives who understand where the organization needs to get and how to get it there. The role of everyone else is to design systems and processes that would support these values and select people to the organization whose values are aligned with those of the company. That is the only way to get to maximal performance.

But what if one of the values that the executive team comes up with is “transparency” and when you look at the organizational processes you see complete opposite? That is fine! This is what Patrick M. Lencioni would call an aspirational value. It is a value that the organization wants and needs to adopt to be successful in the future. It is important to acknowledge that it is not a core value yet, otherwise it would just reek of hypocrisy. Accepting that we are not “transparent” today, but that is the key competitive advantage of the future and working hard to adjust processes so they support this aspirational value will get us there. It won’t be an easy journey and may even mean changes in the team composition since not everyone’s core values will align with the one we are trying to build into the organization.

Principles and natural laws

Merriam-Webster defines Principle as:

  • a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption
  • a rule or code of conduct
  • the laws or facts of nature underlying the working of an artificial device

Why are we talking about this? It is important to realize that whatever core or aspirational values an organization or an individual have they are still governed by natural laws. Basic, underlying principles, that can’t be bent or ignored. For example, you may say that one of the core values of yours is “we invest in our people”. To prove it you give new employees two days to study thousand pages manual and then take an exam. Chances are that some of them will actually succeed. How? They will cheat! The problem is not that they would be in their core dishonest. The problem is that you broke a natural law that says that learning takes time and you have mistaken effectiveness with efficiency. You tried to live by your core value and be efficient at the same time. Unfortunately for you the nature said “no”, and you build a culture where people have to be dishonest from day one to align with your core value.

The modern society with ever increasing speed and need for efficiency is pushing us more and more to ignore the natural laws. That is one of the primary causes that leads to demotivation, frustration, and depression. In our subconscious mind we know that what we are trying to do or being asked to do is not in principle possible. But we still behave as it is not a problem and end up with some sort of acceptable results and depressed minds.

Trust and trustworthiness

And that leads me to the last and arguably most important aspect of successful leadership. It all starts with trust and trustworthiness. I would argue that if you, your boss, or your team are not trusting each other it leads to a rather lousy collaboration and ultimately lower performance than what the potential of the team is. And trust starts with each individual’s trustworthiness. How do you know whether someone or even you are trustworthy in the role you sit? To follow the thoughts of Stephen R. Covey you need to consider person’s character and competence. Character will tell you whether person’s core values are in line with the needs of the job. For example, would you trust a brilliant accountant to keep your books if you knew he regularly embezzles money? No. Competence then informs you whether the person is equipped to do the job from technical side. You probably wouldn’t give an accounting job to the most honest man in the World if you knew he can’t read and write, would you?

Back to basics

To sum all this up. When you are defining a leadership role, or in fact any role, in your organization or figuring out how to manage performance or develop people you need to start with the basics. Make sure you fill your jobs with trustworthy people, who have the character and the competence. Or who at least have the character and can build the competence over time with proper guidance. Then talk about what are the company’s core values and how they align with values of individuals you are considering for the role. While doing this that these core values needs to be aligned for two reasons. First, it is to ensure the total ecology of the environment you are creating and working in where the core values don’t go against each other. Second, you need to understand the natural laws that apply here and that some things simply won’t happen because that is not how mother nature works.


Do you think that strong core values are important for a leader? Do you lead by adhering to natural laws or are you trying to impose quick fixes on problems that they simply can’t fix without even realizing it?

Photo: geralt /

Categories: Career, Leadership

Tags: ,

6 replies


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