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Monday, March 29, 2010

Leaders Stand for Something

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, consistently emerged from public opinion polls as the most esteemed American woman of the mid-20th century, and one of the most highly regarded and inspirational women in the world. Though born into a world of extraordinary privilege, she was admired by people of all races and classes. One columnist called her "the most influential woman of our times."

Two features stand out in her life: First, how comfortable she appeared to be with herself and, second, how clear and outspoken she was about her values and principles. This clarity was especially striking because many of her beliefs were not widely shared by society of the time.

She did more than speak though. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused in 1939 to let Mariam Anderson, the black contralto, sing in Philadelphia's Constitution Hall because of her race, Roosevelt publicly resigned from that then-august organisation. It was a step that might today seem little more than politically correct, but then it required great courage and created considerable comment.

Values are at the heart of Positive Leadership. As GE CEO, Jeff Immelt says: ‘The future belongs to leaders who want to win without ever losing track of their own values.’

Values are simply what you consider most important in life, as revealed not only by your claims and statements but also, especially, by your decisions and deeds. When we ask people “What are your values?” they sometimes have difficulty answering. But no one has trouble with the questions, “What’s important to you?” or "What are you passionate about?" They’re all the same thing.

Values, or guiding principles and beliefs, can range from the highest ethical and moral aspirations – for freedom and equality and justice, for example – to such basic requirements as safety and comfort. Values can be psychological states, such as closeness and communities, or needs, like the desire to win or excel.

Every time you make a choice – when buying something in a shop or deciding to take a new job or asking someone to be your spouse – you’re reflecting your values, what’s important to you.

So, in fact, all of us have dozens of values, if not more. But when we speak of values here we mean the few that are absolutely core to you, the ones around which you construct your life and make large, life-shaping decisions.

The reason values are critical is that they define you. To know you, to follow you, someone must know what’s important to you. That’s why values reside at the heart of Positive Leadership.

Without knowing a leader's values, those in the leader's group have no way of knowing or predicting what he or she will do. Without a clear set of values, clearly expressed and lived, a leader can only ask others to follow blindly, something most people rightly hesitate to do.

All of us can be inspiring as leaders. Most of us won't have a public persona like Eleanor Roosevelt's. And most of us are unlikely to face a crisis in which we're asked to condone or support racial prejudice. But we will have to face different situations where remaining ourselves, fully authentic, will be difficult, and holding true to who we are and what we believe will make us inspiring to the people who work for us. 


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