You Lead From Core Values and Character

Matthew A. Overlund
Mar 3, 2020 · 9 min read

What do core values and character have to do with leadership?

To explain that, I’m going to start by talking about dieting. Yes, dieting.

Regardless of your relationship with food, or what living healthy means to you, we can hopefully agree on one thing. Inconsistent actions get unpredictable or outright undesirable results.

If you want to improve your health, and maybe lose a bit of weight along the way, doubling or tripling your ice cream intake is probably not the way to get there. I’ve tested this out on your behalf, so just trust me on this one.

What do you have to do to make a diet work? You have to commit to consistently making good choices, taking the right actions, and, most importantly, following through on that commitment.

I don’t care if you are following the Mediterranean-Keto-Paleo-Raw Only-Intermittent Starvation on every other Tuesday diet. You may even discover some miracle plan where you eat nothing but carbs in candy form and lose at least 2 pounds every day.

Whatever works for you is what I want to see you pursue.

Attempting to follow a fad diet simply because it’s the hot new thing this week when you know it doesn’t suit your lifestyle or give you the results you want, doesn’t make any sense.

So, find something that works, and do that. Keep doing it long past the point where you think about stopping, having a cheat day, or just giving up.

Habits can have either an excellent or horrible effect on your life, depending on the choices you make.

This isn’t a book on how to make, break, or change your habits. I do, however, want you to take away one thing. When you successfully adopt a new practice or pattern, you have succeeded in changing your life.

Maybe it was a change for the better, perhaps it was a change for the worse. Either way, you’ve changed your life from that point forward, until you choose to change that area of your life again.

You’ve shifted who you are, who you are being. Don’t believe me?

Imagine yourself in this scenario: you say you want to live a healthier life, but you won’t stop eating things that are making you unhealthy and unhappy. Your weight isn’t where you’d like it to be. You don’t like how you look. You don’t like how you feel. A lack of energy keeps you from enjoying some activities.

What you say, and what you do can be very different things. We may say we want to be healthier, but if we aren’t willing to establish and maintain healthier habits, who are we actually being?

Who do you want to be?

Do you want to be that healthy person, or do you want to talk about being healthier but never really put in the effort?

I think we all want to be consistent, in both word and deed. Well, if I’m being honest, I would like to think that of everyone. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. In practice, I think we all fail at this sometimes, not least of all me. The key is in recognizing we must both understand who we want to be, and then take action to make that decision a reality.

And, therein lies one of the keys to successful leadership.

We must recognize who we are, as people, and as leaders. We must work to define who we want to become. Then we must get comfortable with making ourselves uncomfortable.

I want you to develop the ability to question your own actions against behaviors you want to achieve, and ultimately live.

Question your every action and compare it to your stated intentions. Shining a light on any disparity there can be painful, but in doing so, you will learn more about yourself, if you are honest in the process.

See, it’s not about dieting at all.

I want you to think about who you want to be as a leader. Set aside any doubts you still hold, for a moment at least, about whether or not you are a leader. Believe that you are a leader, if only in your own mind, if only of your self.

Who do you want to be?

No Easy Question

For consisting of only five simple words, that can be a tough question to answer.

Who do you want to be?

To help you start to paint this picture of future-you in your mind, and make this question easier to answer, let’s first talk about your core values.

What are your core values?

Your values and ability to align those values to the choices you make will define the life you live. Value-based actions show you and the rest of the world exactly who you are. We revisit that concept below as we look at character.

Put simply, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we aren’t psychologically wired to act against our nature for an extended period.

At least not without any adverse effects.

I’m not suggesting that people can’t change. Nor that people’s values may not change over time — but when that happens, you can be sure that you will inevitably change your patterns of behavior. These changes often include significant life-altering decisions.

How many stories, movies, or even real-life experiences have you encountered where you were taught that it can be challenging to remain true to your values, to who you are, when faced with external pressures?

We learn about peer pressure as kids. I grew up in the ’80s, so for me, peer pressure was embodied by the Nancy Reagan era ads to Say No to Drugs. “This is your brain on drugs.” Apparently, our brains in the ’80s were a fried egg. If you weren’t old enough to enjoy these ads live on TV, you could relive them through the magic of the internet.

As challenging as it can be to avoid external pressure, we often forget to apply the same rigor to ourselves. It’s easy to fall into patterns of behavior that are driven by what we feel we need to do or should be doing. We fail to consider our values as we commit ourselves to a particular job, goal, or course of action.

We want to make choices that are well aligned to our core values because those choices are more comfortable to sustain and don’t feel counter to our nature. They leave us capable of being happy about who we are being.

Now that you understand why connecting to your core values is essential, I want to dispel some common confusion around what we actually mean by values.

Let’s start with an explanation of three commonly related concepts that fiction writers explore as they work to develop and understand a new character.

Fictional characters are, by definition, not real people. Consider the books, movies, or plays that have impacted you the most, that effect you deeply every time you experience them. The characters feel as real as you or I. This is because the author has created a realistic, believable, human character complete with their own beliefs, value system, strengths, and yes, flaws.

As a character for a new work evolves, the author often tries to understand their values. They want that character to be able to answer the question: “Who do you want to be?”

Values, then, are the beliefs we hold that we consider unquestionable. They are the fundamental truths we hold to be self-evident. The reference to the United States Declaration of Independence is, of course, intentional.

Our personal values can often be hard to explain to others because, for each of us, they are usually not concepts that we naturally consider subject to logical or rational explanation. We believe our values, we believe in our values, and they are so ingrained in who we are that we consider them unquestionable tenants. They are so fundamental to who we are, we feel they should be evident to everyone.

Of course, not everyone has the same values. When our values clash individually, hopefully, we have a logical discussion where we may try to rationalize our value system to someone else, and we may end by saying, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” At the other end of the spectrum, we clash on a global scale. We see the outcomes of these every time we read or watch the world news.

When we are at our best, however, our values both define us and guide us to be who we believe we should be. We inherit some of these from our families, our social circles, our religious beliefs, and our societies. Others are entirely our own. The unique combination of values we adopt forms the core of our personality and who we become.

When we’ve done that, and can dig no deeper, our response to the repeated ask, “Why?” becomes simply, “It’s important to me.”

Then, we’ve reached an understanding of our values.

From Values to Character

If your values are the foundation of who you are, then character is the outward expression of those values.

What are the mental and moral beliefs and behaviors that you exhibit on a day to day basis that show the world who you are based on your consistent actions?

This is your character.

Are your values and your outward expression of your character consistent?

Are you able to say that you value healthy living and reinforce that value by the habits you build, the actions you take, that result in a healthy life?

If your values and character are not consistent, then ask yourself this: Who are you really being? Who do you really want to be?

How would that person behave? How would they show the world who they are through their actions?

Your values will show you the way your character emerges as you walk the path. You start developing as a leader when you recognize \your values and your character, and how those aspects of your personality, of your self, are tightly related.

Leadership Requires Change

Think about who you want to be. Consider what values that future you would have. How would those values be exhibited in interactions with the world at large?

Consider how you speak, act, and think. These things define your character and show your values.

Do you see any disparity between that person, and who you are today? Are you being who you want to be, or do you see some necessary changes?

You are not alone if you see room for improvement. One of the only constants we can count in life seems to be that we will never stop learning, growing, and changing.

Never is that more evident than when we start to admit that leadership always begins with ourselves, and effective leadership will require us to change, to grow, to learn, and improve.

This need for change and growth applies equally to how we show up as leaders in our own life, as to those times we find ourselves leading others.

Whether by intentional choice or intuition, we gravitate toward the people that we believe will lead us in the direction we want to go. This does not always mean an authoritative position or recognized leadership role.

Sometimes we simply see people that seem to have things figured out. We may talk to them or observe them and find them to be happier or more balanced than we are. What we often discover is that those people don’t have everything figured out — but they have learned to recognize who they want to be.

They are aware of their values. They live those values in their character. They recognize the need for change to keep their values and character in alignment.

They can answer the questions, “Who do you want to be? And what will you do to become that person?”

They are a leader. And, so are you.

This article is part of my 4-part series that answers the question: Where Does Leadership Start? If you enjoyed this content and want more from me, you can join my group of Intentional Leaders here.

Ready for more? Here’s article #3 of 4:

If you are ready to recognize yourself as a leader, you’ll want to read my book: You Are a Leader: Applying Military Leadership Principles to Professional Life.

The digital edition will be available for free. No strings attached.

Sign up here to be notified when it launches!

Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.

When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.

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