In Simple English, What does Leadership Mean? (Part 2)

who are youPart 2 of a 2 Part Series

If we don’t take the time to define the things that we hope will define us, we’re always going to feel as if we aren’t living up to the person we want to be.

After all, how do you give yourself credit for hitting a target you’ve never actually identified? 

General Patton encouraged us to “accept the challenge, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.”  However, unless we define at least some version of “victory”, the exhilaration and fulfillment that propels us towards our next goal never materializes.

Taking the time to define the values you wish to embody in your life, and identifying activities you can engage in each day, is establishing what a victory actually means.

Misunderstanding Values

It’s important to creating that same opportunity for your organization.  After all, people’s behavior is driven by their values, and conflict within your organization – between employees, the people they work for, and the people who work for them– often comes as a result of a misalignment and/or a misunderstanding of values.

The value-based leadership work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner demonstrates that an individual’s commitment to their organization is highest when they have a clear understanding of both the organization’s values and their own personal values.  What’s interesting however, is what leads to the lowest level of commitment: it is not, as you might suspect, when an individual lacks clarity on both the organization’s values and their personal values.

The lowest level of commitment to an organization comes when an individual has a clear understanding of the organization’s values, but not of their own.

Core Values

core valuesAs such, ask your managers to facilitate this process for employees at every level of the organization.  In addition, bring the senior leadership of the organization together and create a list of 12-15 “core values” you hope your organization embodies each day.

For instance, I worked with one organization to create this list:

  • Approachability/Openness
  • Credibility/Respect
  • Equity/Fairness
  • Transparency/Accountability
  • Fiscal Responsibility
  • Advocacy/Representation of Constituents
  • Service Provision
  • Fun
  • Professionalism
  • Personal Development
  • Professional Development
  • Community Service/Outreach
Related:  Overcoming Resistance to Corporate Culture Changes

Defining Values

Then, undertake the following exercise:

  • Give each of your organization’s senior leaders the list of values and ask them to rank them in the order they feel they should be prioritized by your organization.
  • Bring the group together and dedicate 90 minutes to 2 hours to reach a “consensus ranking” of the values, stressing that consensus means creating something everyone can support, rather than something everyone fully agrees with.
  • Ask managers at every level of the organization to organize the same activity for groups of their employees (it works best in groups of about 12).  Once they create their “consensus ranking”, reveal the consensus ranking created by the organization’s senior leaders, and have your managers facilitate a discussion on the employees’ feelings about how their answers align or differ with the senior leadership, why that might be, what impact it might have, and what can/should be done about it.

In reality, the final consensus ranking isn’t what’s important in this exercise – rather it’s the increased understanding generated by the discussion itself. 

our values

Value Agreement

Generally, the discussion will demand leaders not only identify which values are most important to them, but explain exactly what they believe each value means.  You will often hear comments like, “Oh! Okay, if you define ‘accountability’ like that, I agree with you.  I was going on the idea that accountability meant…”  The exercise ensures your organization agrees on common definitions for the values that will fundamentally define your organization.

In addition, you will find that the discussion surfaces different visions for the organization, and demands that the team discuss those differences.  It’s not uncommon to hear statements like, “I’ve always believed our fundamental purpose is to…” or “When it all comes down to it, I think our job is…”

Leadership Skills ChecklistThe earlier these previously unidentified differences are surfaced, the better for your organization.

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What does leadership mean to you? Thanks for your comments!

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Drew Dudley

Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.

  • David McCuistion


    These are great articles on “What Does Leadership Mean.” As you know, it is different things to different people/leaders; I put those two together as I believe and have seen over my US Navy and teaching careers leaders up and down the hierarchy.

    I did an exercise similar to the one you address in Part 2 recently with my 75 Custodians and Security Monitors at the Mukilteo School District in Everett, Washington. They made a list of behaviors under the headings: “What is OK?” and “What is Not OK?”

    The result was an extensive list of values/behaviors that they felt fit each category. It was value-laden and comprehensive. I ended up placing in in our departmental “Custodial Standards of Performance (CSOP)”. My Executive Director was impressed and took it to her weekly Director’s Meeting to share.

    Drew, to me Leadership means a process of serving that instills within other leaders and followers an ideal of empowerment and improvement that takes them to a level they would not achieve through their own efforts. This includes ideals beyond basic values to include a moral base that drive ethical behavior to a high-level of common good. In so doing, their personal effectiveness, efficiency and productivity will improve to higher levels, making them better employees and individuals.

    I am a practitioner of Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. Over the past 25-30 years I have seen it bring about a drastic change in the lives of people — leaders and followers.

    Thank you for the articles and opportunity to respond.


  • Portrays value alignment of individual & organization is a basic element to a leader & practice it to ensure more leaders emerge of such nature & just not followers alone

    Empowered leaders are self initiators & stand up to the cause as a driving force for synergy among groups.

    Responsibility & accountability become part of the same thereby the overall productivity results.


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