How to Become the Leader You Envision Without Sacrificing Your Values

The values you set as a leader aren’t just fodder for inspirational posters and new-hire pamphlets, and they certainly aren’t a branding tagline. Yet too many employees report a deep chasm between the ideals their leaders broadcast and their lived experiences in the workplace. In a 2020 survey of job seekers, 62% said their recent employers had a set of core values, but about 16% said they didn’t live up to those values.

As humans, we love to think in binaries. We crave the simplicity of a reality where things are either right or wrong, good or bad. But of course, that’s not the world we live in. The business world is no exception; it’s rife with difficult gray-area situations that throw into sharp relief the difference between moral theory and ethical decision-making in practice. Managers and other company leaders navigate ethical dilemmas big and small every single day — and how they handle them depends on their framework of values.

Related: When Good Leaders Create Bad Results

A few years ago, for example, my co-founder was in a horrible boating accident that left him in a medically induced coma. Deciding how to move forward was difficult. He’d been heavily involved in making critical decisions at the business unit level, but we couldn’t just halt operations while he was incapacitated. Some of my associates wanted to remove him from the business to keep things running smoothly, but I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty upset to come out of a coma and find my business duties swiped from underneath me. So instead, I temporarily assumed his duties and gave them back the moment he walked out of the hospital. He had been instrumental in building a global network of ambassadors and advisors for the business through his own connections, and this decision helped retain their trust in the business.

That scenario may seem like an extreme example, but ethical dilemmas face entrepreneurs and business leaders every day in unforeseen ways. Keeping one’s moral compass on course can be surprisingly difficult at times. Here are a few ways to make sure you don’t lose your integrity as you continue to evolve as a leader:

1. Take stock of your team’s values
The thing about everyday ethics is that they’re subject to interpretation, and you can’t expect your teammates to adopt your values with no questions asked. After all, when faced with a tricky decision, good people (for good reasons) can reach different conclusions surrounding the best way forward. Yet when values are shared among all team members, productivity soars and people feel more connected to the overall mission. To find the middle ground, take stock of your team’s short- and long-term values.

Short-term values are things like generosity, accuracy, or having fun. They can change depending on the project or team. For example, having fun wouldn’t be applicable when launching a tech platform for a funeral home, and accuracy might work against the “move fast and break things” ethos of a hackathon. On the other hand, long-term values — think fostering an environment that’s respectful of all employees and following equitable promotion practices — should never change.

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