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Values-Based Leadership Gone Wrong
How to challenge yourself to reach the next level
This article is about how to examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of our values so we don’t blindly act on them and cause unintended harm in the process.
Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, described a pivotal childhood moment in his biography: “[T]hat image of my father — slumped on the family couch, his leg in a cast, unable to work or earn money, and ground down by the world — is still burned into my mind.”
Schultz watched his father struggle with failing health and unemployment and experienced firsthand its toll on the family’s morale and finances. As a result, Schultz committed to “never leave anyone behind.” Fast forward to adulthood, when Schultz lobbied the SEC to grant stock to part-time employees and publicly committed support for DACA, immigrants, and affordable health care in response to Trump’s proposed and instituted policies. A profound childhood experience surfaced a value that still bolsters Schultz to act in purposeful and sometimes unpopular ways.
I neither own stock in Starbucks nor consider myself a Schultz devotee, but this story illuminates that values are powerful. In the seminal book The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write, “Clarity of values will give you the confidence to make the tough decisions, to act with determination, and to take charge of your life.”
Like many people, I am seduced by Schultz-like stories that tell us to: 1) reflect on defining life moments, 2) identify personal values, 3) align values to actions, and 4) achieve pride, fulfillment, and clarity.
As an executive coach, first with Teach for America and now independent, I’m going to share some stories of how blind adherence to values can lead you astray.
Take my client Anya (all names changed here for confidentiality), whose value around compassion means she routinely lowers expectations for her direct reports because she empathizes in excess with their stress and personal dilemmas. She sends a disempowering message to her people that they lack resilience.
Or take another client, Trevor, whose value around humility means he defers to those with more experience, thereby quieting his own voice and opinions. His creative ideas are squandered.
Anya and Trevor are aligning their values and actions, but they are undermining themselves, their people, or their impact in the process. Learning to regularly examine and exercise our values in a more nuanced way can help bring forward our most powerful selves.
How do we honor our values and not limit ourselves or others?
Consider Steve, one of my previous executive coaching clients. Steve is the oldest child and only son in his family. From an early age, he received the message that he should “take care of his mother and sisters” and embraced the noble value of personal responsibility. This value translated to actions like setting ambitious goals and meeting them at all cost; success brought Steve pride.
But when we met, something had shifted. To Steve, personal responsibility meant he couldn’t negotiate deadlines, cancel commitments, or say no to taking on team members’ projects when they felt overloaded. He described feeling like a firefighter trapped under a pile of rubble, gasping for air. In Steve’s imagery, he saw colleagues nonchalantly walk past him and add to the growing rubble pile. Steve pleaded with me, “Why aren’t they helping me?”
Identify Emotional Experience
For Steve, exercising personal responsibility, at this stage in life, triggered strong, unwanted emotions. When emotions show up like this as we act on our values, it can be helpful to sit with and label them to fully understand the emotional experience and investigate how it affects our desired impact.
We used the chart below to plot Steve’s emotional state and consider how and if it served him. This chart is an exercise I use with some clients to help them see whether their current emotional state is productive.
Steve rated his experience as a Level 1. He felt annoyed by his colleagues’ disregard for all he took on and helpless in terms of how to make change. These emotions, while human and valid, kept Steve pinned under the rubble. His attachment to them caused him to spin on questions like, “What’s wrong with me that I’m still stuck under this rubble (self-blame)?” or, “Why won’t they just help me (other-blame)?” This fed a cycle of judgment and made him “stuck.”
Once Steve saw the self-defeating nature of tightly holding on to Level 1 emotions, he got hungrier to move through Level 2 to reach Level 3. But how?
To get unstuck, we must be willing to sit in the uncertainty of Level 2 and resist the temptation to move into a Level 1 experience. This can be hard. It requires us to let go of what we think we know and who we believe we need to be and consider new possibilities. We do it by getting nonjudgmentally curious about what’s going on and why. Specifically, in my coaching with Steve, we wrestled with motivation questions to help him move toward a Level 3 state. Steve considered:
- Am I motivated to prove a point by exercising my value in this way? Does that point really matter to me?
- Am I motivated primarily to please others by exercising my value in this way? Is that genuinely helpful to me and others?
- Am I motivated to exercise my value in this way because of fear? Who am I afraid I will be or stand for if I exercise this value differently? How truly valid is that fear?
For Steve, proving to his father that he could “take care of it all” served as a primary motivation to embody personal responsibility in this way. He sought to show that he could do his work and the work of others — the same way he could care for himself and his mother and siblings — no matter the negative impact on his well-being.
This outdated motivation felt appropriate for an approval-seeking child but stifling to an executive leader. At this stage in life, Steve wanted his commitment to personal responsibility to come not from a desire to please his dad but from his desire to see his team flourish and deliver on promised results.
Though proving a point, pleasing others, and listening to fear aren’t vices, we can get stubbornly attached to these motivations and fail to notice the toll they take on our clarity and confidence. Connecting with more productive, meaningful, and relevant motivations can be a powerful way to move to Level 3.
Relinquish or Redefine the Value
If we discover that our motivation is misguided or outdated, it’s helpful to determine if we want to relinquish or redefine our value so it’s being exercised in the way that’s most impactful. In our work, Steve considered:
- Do I still really believe in this value?
- If I do, how do I want to define this value to create better outcomes?
Steve felt deeply connected to this value and still wanted to prioritize. But he knew that blindly following a narrow definition of “personal responsibility” felt suffocating. So, to honor the value but change his lived experience, Steve committed to being personally responsible for empowering his people instead of doing it all himself.
This created expansiveness for him instead of resentment. Steve worked with his direct reports to redefine a project’s scope and equipped them to complete it under a revised timeline instead of taking it on for them. Steadily, he noticed himself removing pieces of rubble from the pile, getting out from under its crushing weight, and feeling pride in his productive shifts in mindset and behavior.
Our values are dynamic. Just as Steve had to renegotiate his in adulthood, I imagine Schultz has to reckon with his when external forces rattle his conviction. As a result, we can’t expect to just know our values and then operate on autopilot in accordance with them. We must tend to them, question them, reassess them, and sometimes release them in order to live and lead in the way we most aspire.
So, just as Steve did, we can all home in on a particular value and notice our emotional experience with it, assess our motivation to act on it, and then choose to relinquish or redefine it so that we’re thriving as complex humans looking to lead our most purposeful and effective lives.