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Values-Based Leadership: Find Your Inner Compass, Lead Well

Picture a leader you admire. What do you think makes her/him tick?

Martin Luther King, Jr.One of my most admired leaders has always been Martin Luther King, JrHere’s the problem: I’ve often thought of him as kind of a saint. I have forgotten that he had everyday, mundane decisions to make – small things that added up to the sum total of his life. He ate three meals a day, needed sleep, and had a family. He was just like you and me – except for how he managed to transcend the everyday mundane details, to strive for his highest ideals.

In our first evening session for the 2015-16 EPIP-YNPN Leadership Institute, sponsored by the Twin Cities chapters of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities (YNPN-TC), I had a chance to explore this interplay between my everyday life and my highest ideals.

Damon Shoholm, Director of the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute at the Wilder Foundation, led us through exercises related to Values-Based Leadership.

What is Values-Based Leadership, you might be wondering? In short, we are talking about a way of being and leading in the world that fulfills our most deeply held values. As a dyed-in-the-wool practical idealist, I found this topic irresistible.

We all value things, for sure. 

But how much do we get a chance to stop and think about, to really consider, what our most important values are?

And how much do we get to act out our values in boots-on-the-ground, real-world ways? Do our values remain ethereal concepts? Or do we bring them down to earth?

Here are some of the things Damon asked us to consider: 

  • I’m at my best when…
  • I’m at my worst when…
  • What do I really love to do at work?
  • What do I really love to do in my personal life?
  • If I had unlimited time and resources, and I knew I could not fail, what would I choose to do?

Beyond those topics, he asked us to think about three people who have influenced us the most, past or present – people who we would want to invite to dinner. We then listed the qualities/attributes we admired most about them. This exercise helped me understand what values, when lived out practically, inspire me. 

I encourage you to do the same.

That exploration of inspiring personal attributes jived well with the last exercise we did: identifying a Personal Values Checklist. We were given a list of values and asked to pick our top seven. Then, through successive rounds of elimination, we had to narrow down our top values – to just three.

Options we considered:

  • Achievement: sense of accomplishment
  • Innovation: creation of new methods and practices, creativity
  • Authenticity: being frank and genuinely myself
  • Excellence: pursuit of high quality
  • Service: dedicated to helping others
  • Spirituality: meaning of life, religious belief
  • And more 

Do you know how hard it was to narrow down that list? Very hard. So many of the values we considered were ideals that are important to me. I found it hard to leave behind most of them as “not a priority.”

Here’s the thing, though.

As Damon demonstrated, being clear about our most important values helps us to make decisions on where we will dedicate our (let’s face it, limited) time and energy. Instead of being scattered in many different directions, we can more easily say “no” to the things that aren’t fulfilling our greatest values – and move toward the things that are.

A great example of this was Damon himself, who chose to give up time with his wife and kids to be there with us that night. He shared with us how he realized that he was willing to make that sacrifice, because helping people become better leaders is one of his most passionately held values.

We all make these types of decisions, every single day.

Do you have a clear set of values guiding you, in the process? Do you have a personal mission statement? How do your values influence your involvement in the community? How do you balance your time, so you can do work that connects you to your values? How do you make sure that, when you reach your 90th birthday, you have accomplished what you wanted to accomplish with your life?

These are all questions that we have begun to consider, in our Leadership Institute cohort. Answers do not come in just one night. In fact, as we discussed, they may evolve throughout a lifetime.

Consider these questions yourself. Big questions, I know. Hard to tackle, yes. But I’ll wager that you’ll be glad you considered them, if you do.


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