Value Systems : Values in Action

Mick Yates is a globally experienced chief executive, with a track record across Europe, Asia Pacific, Australasia and the USA. He has held Leadership positions in both Fortune 50 and Social Development Enterprises.

In 1997, Mick founded, one of the web’s most popular leadership development sites.

This article was first published as an introduction to a series of articles on values in leadership in AMED's Organisations & People journal, Vol 12 No 1 (February 2005). Check out our AMED Organisations & People section for more details.

Successful CEO and founder of the LeaderValues website Mick Yates introduces this issue of O & P which is dedicated to the idea that values are fundamental to the successful leadership of organisations.

This issue of “Organisations & People” is dedicated to the idea that values are fundamental to the successful leadership of organisations. Like many people working with today’s complex organisations, I see that real, transformational change requires distributed leadership held together by both clear strategic purpose and shared beliefs. Study of Communities of Practice and social networks underpins this essential duality.

In many ways the leadership process has not changed throughout history, requiring clear vision, an effective (and competitive) tool kit, clear organisational structures to get the job done, and empowered and energised people. In the literature it has over time become clearer that there must also be a set of values which are shared by leaders and followers. For example, even Genghis Khan shared the Mongol’s values of a nomadic lifestyle, and it was this that provided a shared foundation for his vast empire. Many writers have addressed values, but I would recommend study of John W. Gardner’s “On Leadership” for one of the better discussions.

It is almost certainly impossible to provide a ‘final definition’ of leadership. Instead we need a practical framework of activities against which leaders can assess themselves and help develop their people and their enterprises. It must integrate the leader’s task related activities with their organisational requirements. And any framework must be contingent in that leadership activities must be modifiable to fully reflect the enterprise’s needs. My research has shown that there is much common ground in today’s leadership thinking upon which to build such a framework.

  • Leaders and followers are interdependent— you can’t have one without the other—it is a collective activity
  • Leadership requires values congruence between all of the players.
  • Leadership is an organisational process, not a one-off event.
  • Leadership is about successfully handling complexity—making successful strategic and tactical decisions, and simplifying things.
  • Leadership and change are synonymous— leaders innovate.
  • Leadership is a teachable process, and can therefore be measured.

This research (including experience within major multinationals, and building on authors such as Fielder, Nadler and Kets de Vries) has led to a useful framework for leadership activities— the 4E’s of Envision, Enable, Empower and Energize—separated into the two dimensions of operational activities (task) and organisational activities (people).

The framework is focused on ‘actions in use’ rather than ‘espoused competencies’ or ‘personal behaviours’. The first three Es symbolise the collective (team based) ‘what’ and ‘how’, whilst the last E suggests the individual yet shared ‘why’, both for the leader and team members. It is this collectiveness of the activities that make values fundamental to the effective working of the 4E’s framework.

The Value of Values

Turning to the contributors to this edition, Nick Wright states that one must “Sort out your values as a matter of priority before your own staff and stakeholders sound the revolution.” He is concerned that ‘followers’ may be out in front of ‘leaders’, and that we face a post-modern ‘credibility gap’ between our liberal values and, for example, the strength of traditional religious conviction. We must, therefore, work hard to identify and then strengthen a congruent value set.

On a different tack, how can such values congruence really help an enterprise? Sallie Lee & Joan Shafer comment “Being a valuesdriven organisation is rigorous and continuous work whose pay-off includes higher productivity and profitability, best employee attraction and retention, pride, and increased creativity and resilience.” They describe combining Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) with a Cultural Transformation Tool (CTT) to build a cultural transformation process.

Pauline Crawford puts yet another spin on this, noting that “Wellness is a key element of organisational culture; not so much what we do around here as the way we behave around here.” She builds a “Wellness Map®” built on the four domains of performance, balance, connection and purpose. Yet practicability of ‘values’ is always in question.

J.M. and Kalpana Sampath show that “While vision without values is risky, values without vision goes nowhere and values with vision is evolution.” They posit a diagnostic tool based on building clarity of both vision and values. This deals with where to go, how to go, why to go and what to do.

What are Values

Karen Blakeley starts to define ‘values’. She notes: “One way of looking at values is as a set of personal needs that motivate action which we justify in moral terms of what is right and good.” She goes on to comment: “There is a difference between motivational and idealistic values”. In her view motivational values are expressions of personal preferences and needs, whilst idealistic values are expressions of social and organisational norms. She suggests that leaders must be careful not to let their personal goals and needs win out over their more idealistic values.

A three tier management structure (rather than a simple manager - follower approach) is essential, featuring manager, subordinate and ‘manager once removed’, according to John Bryan. This ‘once removed-ness’ provides a catalyst for trust building in an organisation. He  notes: “Trust means having reasonable confidence in the integrity, reliability, and justice of the management system … and the manager-once-removed role provides additional functions needed for sustaining trust.”

John Noble suggests that the concept of Servant Leadership can be extremely helpful, and he explains its richness. He also notes such notions must have practical value. “Servant leadership is not some sort of theoretical idea. It has to be clearly seen in our actions; what we do every day.” He quotes examples from Southwest Airlines, Synovus Financial and TD Industries. In each, the firm seems clear that the well-being and motivation of employees come first, even before customers.

How to Lead

Margaret Wheatley contributes a ‘found poem’ based on Parker Palmer’s book The Active Life. A phrase that stands out is: “An expressive act is not to achieve a goal outside myself but to express a conviction, a leading, a truth that is within me.” She is thus stressing the inner nature of the quest to lead through values.

Somewhat contrastingly, Dan Elash advocates that enterprises must build robust and inclusive strategic development processes if they are to succeed competitively. He argues: “Instead of focusing on a single future, organisations need to recognise the existence of multiple futures and engage the whole workforce in strategic conversations.”

A word of caution comes from Paul Barber. He is a gestalt practitioner, favouring emergence rather than rehearsal. He focuses on possible downsides, and writes: “Many leaders espouse principles they simultaneously undermine by fermenting conditions that promote the exact opposite of their intentions.” In fact, Bruce Nixon goes so far as to say that leadership values are at the root of the current set of global crises. He argues: “Maybe we have much to learn from wise women leaders. Recent Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva put sustainability at the heart of their lives.”

John Burgoyne & Mike Pedler suggest a ‘challenge’ approach to Leadership which they believe is more collective and less individual. It is also more varied and less ‘one size fits all’. They comment: “Leadership is an act of faith. In conditions of risk, confusion, uncertainty and the absence of full information, leadership is exercised via intuitions, hunches, beliefs and faith.” They go on to write that “Leadership is a doing thing; a performance art. It is not defined by any set of personal qualities or competencies, but by what we actually do when faced with challenging situations.”

I am reminded of Keith Grint’s work at this point. Noting that Leadership is both contingent and more than contingent, he suggested that ‘Constitutive Leadership’ is an appropriate expression. This reflects the idea that at any given moment followers are essential to the definition of leadership itself, whilst leaders at that same moment are charged with interpreting the environment, the challenges etc.—and then attempt to ‘sell’ their conclusions back to Followers.

Using historically successful leaders as personal improvement models and benchmarks is the approach suggested by Tim Le Lean. He is not positing a fall back to attempted duplication of ‘great man’ traits or behaviours, but rather a more introspective approach within a personal learning journey. “An historical leader and the values they held can provide a powerful vision for an individual considering their own development in a way that is meaningful and inspirational. This vision could take the form of a picture, image or photograph of the leader, a famous quote or a successful action they undertook.” It is this picture that we can learn from.

Values, Ideas and Time …

In my own work, I see clear linkages between ideas and values. An idea today tends to be thought of as an innovation that can be practically executed and which creates economic value. We can all have ideas, and they result in changes to a greater or lesser extent.

What is interesting is that ideas can lead eventually to values if they are big and robust enough.  As society moved from hunting to agriculture, one assumes someone had the basic idea that not killing people was ‘good’. Later, the idea of the rule of law came along, and then liberal democracy. Both eventually became values in ‘civil society’. The idea of ‘markets’ surfaced, and the values of ‘capitalism’ took hold. On the other hand, Marx had the idea of ‘communism’, which lasted a while but never became an enduring value.

Ideas can be born at ‘internet speed’, but values take time and energy to create and to take hold in a society or an enterprise. Put another way, ideas are fast, and values are slow. Ideas sometimes lead to powerful values, but not always. Sometimes they just die.

In my experience, especially when dealing with multicultural groups, it is often easy to miss the distinction, and make assumptions which are not accurate. For example, in restructuring in Japan, I found that whilst employees fully understood the economic reasons for change and the need to be competitive (the idea), it was difficult for them to grasp the concept of market focus, and to give up ‘lifetime employment’ which was in essence a deeply held value.

So, what is the implication for leaders? It is that we must be able to distinguish between the longer-term core values at work in the group, and the short or mid-term ideas and strategies for change.

Only when there is clarity on the real shared values and possible points of dissonance can leaders move ahead knowing that the followers are, indeed, following willingly.

© Mick Yates and the Association for Management Education and Development (AMED), all rights reserved.  Check out our AMED Organisations & People section or view their website for more journal articles


Fielder, F. (1967) A Theory of Leadership effectiveness, (New York), McGraw Hill.

Gardner, J. W. (1990) On Leadership, (New York), Free Press.

Grint, K. (2000) The Arts of Leadership, (Oxford), OUP.

Nadler, D. (1998) Champions of Change, (San Francisco), Jossey Bass.

Kets de Vries, M. (2001) The Leadership Mystique, (London), Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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