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Leading questions and The 31Practices

In an increasingly unpredictable world, command and control from the centre is simply not as appropriate, practical or effective as it may once have been. Here Alan Williams Director of ServiceBrand Global Ltd and co-author of The 31Practices, presents exclusive extracts, that shine some light on the big challenges for today's leaders.

As leaders, there is a tendency to search for the leadership Holy Grail, focusing on what is external to us; we look to models, experts and gurus in the field. This approach has its merits, but where are the experts when a decision is required?

Context changes so rapidly requiring leaders to identify and develop a different way of leading. At the organisational level, values can be used to create a framework and provide a set of guiding handrails, enabling decisions and actions at the point of delivery to be aligned to the organisation’s central vision and strategy. For individuals and groups, leading with integrity in this environment requires an understanding of your personal purpose and core values and the “fit” with those of the organisation. When action is called for, when a difficult message has to be shared? Rather than looking to experts, you need to work out your own approach, do your own thinking and learn from your own practice. What is your purpose and identity? What are your personal core values? What is meaningful to you? From this basis, integrate what is helpful and relevant from the swathes of leadership concepts, and, through a process of curiosity, explore your own leadership practice and the impact you have on those with whom you work.

Learning to be a leader
A core trait of successful leaders and leadership teams is the ability to learn. There are numerous stories of leaders learning from adversity, whether overcoming a difficult childhood or youth, or learning from business failure. Learning from experience is different to the traditional expert-based learning. This kind of learning requires you to notice and reflect on what you are doing, making your own meaning of events, becoming an active shaper of your development, rather than a passive recipient of the latest fad. Your own view of leaders and leadership will impact on your approach to learning as a leader. So what do you think about leaders and leadership? Is leadership personal or positional? Are leaders born, or do people develop into the leaders you see around you? How do leaders develop? To what extent is leadership a quality belonging to individuals, requiring “heroes” or a quality that is enabled through shared endeavour? So, where do you start? Given that the simple answer to most of the questions posed above is “both and”, what is the starting point? You.

Leadership purpose
Leaders with a sense of purpose will have a strong “anchor”. This clarity and awareness of the “why” is so powerful because it is all too easy to become preoccupied with what needs to be done and how it will all be achieved. Mindful focus on the purpose prevents the “means” becoming more important than the “end”. The starting point is to build the self-knowledge required to lead with purpose. A leader with purpose can contribute more fully to the organisation’s purpose.[i] Some of the big questions to explore: What is your purpose as a leader? What is the difference you want to make? What are you here for? What role does the world need you to fulfil? What inspires you, and in what ways do you want to inspire others? Identifying your core purpose as a leader connects with what’s really core to you and raises your self-awareness and self-knowledge. But leadership is not just about looking inwards. Leadership of a team, group or an organisation is bigger than the individual and needs to be considered in context. For example, what is the purpose of the organisation? Is it a stable or unstable environment, emerging or established? Who are the stakeholders and what do they need from a leader? How does the future perspective inform considerations here and now? What is the role that the leader has been asked to play? Leadership purpose, then, is not a singular entity – it encompasses the leader, the organization context, the future context, the system and the leader’s role within it.

Leadership and core values
Core values are traits or qualities that represent deeply held beliefs. They reflect what is important to us, and what motivates us. In an organization, values define what it stands for and how it is seen and experienced by all stakeholders (customers, employees, service partners, suppliers and communities). Values act as guiding principles – as a behavioural and decision-making compass. In an organization, values (explicit or implicit) guide everyone on a daily basis. They are the foundation for the way things work, providing the basis of the corporate culture. For individuals, as well as organisations, values sit at the gateway between our inner and outer worlds. They describe what is fundamentally important and meaningful to us and directly relate to sense of purpose and to our needs as individuals to survive and thrive. Just as the purpose represents the “why”, core values represent the “how”. And, just as with purpose, the closer the fit between personal and organisational values the better.

In reality, values often exist implicitly, outside formal organization processes and, mostly, under the radar of awareness. The commonly adopted behaviour of people in an organization is a representation of the values and creates the culture, the “felt experience” that stakeholders have. Values impact how the very best thought-out rational processes actually operate in practice. This organization culture is powerful, as Ivan Misner, quoting Peter Drucker reminds us, “Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast”. Awareness of values at an individual level is a starting point to self-insight and understanding, putting them into practice strengthens your stance and presence.

A focus on awareness of values at an organisational level is a powerful way for leaders to help employees and organizations to more easily navigate the complex ambiguous nature of today’s business environment. Articulating core beliefs, traditions and “the way we do things around here” through an explicit set of core values opens things up, empowers employees to make decisions without reference to their line manager for tiny details, ideas flow freely and creativity and innovation take place. Shared and explicit values offer a level of consistency of experience and engagement that is aligned on a site-by-site, national and global level. For leaders of organisations, identifying values is Step 1. It is not enough. Well-written values without good execution can result in anything from sub optimal performance to genuine corporate disasters such as Enron, News of the World or the banking crisis.  

How can leaders make sure that their stakeholders’ experience of the organisational values is explicit and aligned from the boardroom to the front line? Core values can be implemented across an entire organisation system to enable a clear leadership framework for all. As an example of this, consider Zappos, an organisation that integrates core values into its culture and operations, driving a system that enables leaders to align with these core values. At Zappos, the values guide managers’ decisions from Tony Hsieh, CEO, throughout the whole organisation.  Hiring/firing decisions were the crux around which Zappos core values were crafted, enabling a clear articulation of what was REALLY important when it came down to it. If employees were not prepared to hire and fire on the basis of the values, then they were not considered as core. Whilst it is true that the tone is set by every employee, it is the leaders who are particularly visible in everything that they do: from the decisions they make to their day to day behaviour – people take notice of how they behave. It is important for leaders to recognise this responsibility. Leadership Impact – what happens as a result of you?

What is your leadership footprint? What impact do you have?
To fast-forward your impact as a leader, be the leader that you want to become. Rather than just having an idea of the leader you are aiming to be – make it real. Step into the “best you” that you are imagining – act the part. Feel what that feels like, sounds like, thinks like. This might feel a little odd – but it’s not a new idea. Sydney Pollack[ii], an actor and director, turned himself into a director by playing the role of a director: “The first time I directed anything,” he said, “I acted like a director. That’s the only thing I knew how to do, because I didn’t know anything about directing. I had images of directors from working with them and I even tried to dress like a director – clothes that were kind of outdoorsy. If there had been a megaphone around, I would have grabbed it.”

Leadership fears and vulnerability
Until you can really embrace the idea that you are good enough – no matter what gets done and how much remains un-done – you will be bowed down by the possibility of shame and vulnerability.[iii]Getting past fears of your own and vulnerability unlocks your ability to live and lead wholeheartedly. Sharing some of your imperfections openly can have positive consequences. Authenticity has more power than fabricated perfection. And the choice is yours.

Leading across the organisation
Taking values off the board room wall and putting them to work through the organisation by using them to influence the daily behaviours of all is a simple idea, but one which many leaders find a challenge to bring into reality. In part, this is because the approach gets over complicated, or there is insufficient attention paid to the purpose and values to inform decision making or there is a lack of focus on the core daily discipline required for success.

The 31Practices approach builds core values into the daily fabric of organisational operations, creating a golden thread from organisation purpose, vision and mission, right through to the everyday behaviour of each individual employee. A very simple approach, the organisational values are translated into a set of 31 practical behaviours for employees, one for each day of the month.  These behaviours are the “what” that happens in the organisation on a day to day basis, but critically the 31Practices approach provides a way to directly and explicitly connect the “what” to the “how” (values) and the “why” (purpose).

The 31Practices approach provides leaders with an opportunity to embody the values and practices that are expected from others – first you have to lead yourself in order to create an enabling system. To lead others, you need to take the risk – model the daily Practices and share stories of not only what that felt like, but what the impact was – and how you have started to develop your habits. The way in which leaders behave is magnified and there is more attention paid to what they do….and do not do.

A story – values in practice
As an example of leadership impact, imagine a hospital where a group of new employees have just attended part of their induction programme, focusing on the importance of the hospital group’s values. One value is Excellence and there was a discussion about the importance of “meticulous attention to cleanliness” to demonstrate this value in practice. On the way to the restaurant for lunch, the employees see the hospital group’s chief executive and her colleagues coming in the opposite direction. Between the two groups there is some litter on the floor. Imagine, the chief executive’s group reaches it first and everybody steps over it, witnessed by the group of new employees. What do the fresh new recruits think? “The litter is not important to the chief executive… cleanliness is not important to the chief executive… the value of excellence is not important to the chief executive, the values are not important to the chief executive”.

Now consider the impact if the chief executive or one of her colleagues had picked up the piece of litter and put it in a bin: “Wow, they really walk the talk here, the chief executive picks up litter because meticulous attention to cleanliness is important and demonstrates the hospital group’s value of excellence. I feel proud to work at an organisation like this”.So, for all that is written about what makes great leaders, it is helpful to remember that, ultimately, leaders are people: people with their own personal characteristics who will interact with and impact on others in their role as a leader. As such, there is no “one way” of leadership but there is great value in understanding and developing YOUR way of leading and that of your organisation. What is critical is authenticity and the changing landscape for business and organizations will arguably bring the importance of values into even sharper focus.

The internet and social media have brought greater transparency than ever before. Whereas some years ago, it was perhaps possible for organizations to invest in marketing and PR to tell the story they wanted others to hear, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to tell a story that is far from the reality. Organizations are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are. Leaders are responsible for their personal authenticity and also the authenticity of their organisations. On both levels, having a strong sense of purpose (why) and core values (how) combined with the discipline to make these the foundation of all decisions and behaviour (what) is the key. Of course, this is not easy, because if it was, everybody would be doing it, but a purpose and values based leadership approach can be very rewarding in terms of measurable results, fulfilment and sustainability at both a personal and organisational level In the words of the Fun Boy Three and Bananarama:“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results”.

The 31Practices: Release the power of your organisation VALUES every day by Alan Alan Williams Founder and Alison Whybrow PhD BSc CPsychol.


[ii]Sydney Pollack, (1934 – 2008), an American director, producer and actor. Perhaps best known for Tootsie and Three days of the Condor.

[iii]Brene Brown is an inspirational speaker and writer. She has written three books. The latest is 2012: Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. New York: Penguin books.

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