Values-based leadership is both a leadership style and philosophy that builds on the shared beliefs and assumptions of the leader and the team. Because a common set of values is shared, teams experience greater alignment and benefit from higher productivity.
OK, that's simple enough in theory, and it stands to reason that employees who share similar values and philosophies will work together more harmoniously. But what does it feel and look like in action, and how can you introduce this idea to your current team?
Let's start with some basic premises. Values-based leadership tends to be selfless in nature. Selfless leadership, otherwise known as servant leadership (as articulated by author Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay "The Servant as Leader"), proposes that the servant leader is servant first. Their first desire is to serve others and make them better people. From there, the servant leader helps those served grow to become "healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become leaders."
Likewise, values-based leadership builds off of a foundation of emotional intelligence, where self-reflection, a balanced perspective and genuine humility, among other attributes, make people stronger. Productivity follows from there.
Step 1: Express this on day one with new hires.
One of the great masters of values-based leadership is Mark Taylor, Nickelodeon's former general manager and senior vice president for 15 years. Nickelodeon thrived under Taylor's leadership, becoming the destination studio for animators worldwide. Taylor advises, "Setting values and expectations needs to occur during the first week of employment. Set aside time with each new hire cohort to get to know them personally and make sure they find in one another a special bond as new hires. This was also my opportunity to share my 'Big 8 Rules of the Road,' where I took the opportunity to outline how special the Nickelodeon family was, what made us unique, and how each new hire remained accountable for perpetuating the culture that was so dear to me and everyone else. It's amazing how new hires took to those values and made them their own. And one thing's for sure: Everyone understood what was expected of them and naturally wanted to be part of such a special culture. That's the glue that binds people to your organization."
Taylor's "Big 8" focused on high quality, personal accountability, mutual respect and passion for the work. He included the importance of "true leadership," whether you were in management or in an individual contributor role. And he handed out a one-sheet with his principles and mantras mapped out, with the tagline:
Strong Principles + Belief in People = Strong Leadership
Taylor was and still is an animation industry legend. How exciting for new hires—from animators to accountants to mailroom staff and janitors—to spend time with him, feel his genuine concern for them and the organization, and be welcomed personally to the Nickelodeon family.
Once Taylor had met with new hires, he would hold a separate meeting a few days later for those in formal leadership positions. "The follow-up meeting with newly hired managers was a bit more pointed and specific in terms of my expectations," Taylor said. "We worked off the values one-sheet again, this time focusing on expectations of these management team members in terms of communication, team building and furthering the culture. It was likewise important to address the potential negative consequences for not meeting these expectations since the management team would be held to a higher standard of accountability." Performance, creativity and innovation soared in an environment where people felt connected to a culture that was so safely cherished, with clear expectations surrounding performance, productivity, respect and gratitude.
Step 2: Introduce your values to your current team.
It may feel awkward to suddenly call a meeting to express your leadership values with your current team, especially if you've been working together for years. "But there's no time like the present to reset expectations, especially as we emerge out of a devastating pandemic where new norms and patterns are quickly being re-established," said Kim Congdon, global vice president of human resources and talent management at Herbalife Nutrition in Torrance, Calif. "Introducing values-based leadership impacts everything from recruitment and selection to employee engagement and satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance because people want to feel like they're part of an organization that shares their values and values them as individuals. They likewise want to know what's expected of them. It's that simple, and it works because it pierces people's hearts, which is something no employee handbook or policies and procedures manual will ever do."
Here's what it might sound like in practice:
I called this meeting to introduce something new. This isn't meant to be an HR idea du jour that's shared and forgotten. I've been researching and studying this, and I feel like it could really help us cement our relationships and perform at a higher level. It's called values-based leadership, and it's intended to set a standard for us all to follow. As you lead your own teams in the future, I'd encourage you to do this, too, if you feel this is successful. But I want to outline my 10 most important values on a one-sheet that we can discuss now and refer to going forward. You can call them 'Paul's Crucial 10' or something similar, but they're intended to help us keep focused, ensure that we're supporting one another appropriately and remind us to actually have fun in our day-to-day activities. That's an order! So, let's discuss this together and see if we can all agree on the premises I've mapped out.
- Have one another's backs.
- Create a friendly and inclusive work environment.
- Always bring out the best in others.
- Practice selfless leadership (i.e., put others' needs ahead of your own and expect them to respond in kind).
- Demonstrate accountability in all you do for both your performance and conduct.
- Follow the leader-as-coach model: Each of you is responsible for helping others reach their personal best; people should seek you out for help as a mentor and leader.
- Focus on career and professional development. Building your resume and LinkedIn profile stems from an achievement mindset that focuses on quantifying accomplishments.
- Have fun—lighten things up a bit and celebrate successes.
- Do your very best work every day with peace of mind.
- No drama! Life's too short, and we spend more time with each other than with our own families. Let's create a work experience that brings out the best in all of us.
Now, I'll ask you all to give this some thought for our next meeting so that we can discuss what this might look and feel like in reality on our team. And I'll welcome you to meet with me individually if you have any concerns about our rolling this out successfully. But we've got to start somewhere, and this is as healthy a place as any. I'm looking forward to partnering with you all to make these values our go-forward action plan. Does anyone have any initial thoughts on this and how the overall goal will help us feel more aligned and in sync with one another?
Advised Congdon, "If you're a CEO, business owner, division or department head, or supervisor or team lead, share your values and your expectations upfront and openly. State them proudly, give examples of how they work, and remind everyone that your culture is unique and worthy of attention. Add them as a permanent topical point to your staff meetings and employee gatherings, asking for recent examples that further your organization's mission and values. Most important, know that people will feel more secure when they understand what's expected of them, when they can relate to you and your values as their leader, and when they appreciate the opportunity to join and remain part of such a special family."
Nickelodeon's success soared under Mark Taylor's legendary leadership. You, too, can tell your story about your history and culture proudly, set expectations, and raise the bar for all employees to perform at their highest level. It's amazing how a simple philosophy—clearly expressed and modeled every day—can have such a tremendous impact on a business. Great leadership can be yours. All it takes is a change to your sponsoring thought about who you are and who you choose to be. Values-based leadership may very well be the most impactful—and simplest—leadership intervention to get you and your team where you want to go.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online. He is a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach and author of The Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (March 2022). The first book in the five-book series is titled Workplace Ethics: Mastering Ethical Leadership and Sustaining a Moral Workplace. Other books in the series focus on the talent management life cycle, including Effective Hiring; Leadership Offense; Leadership Defense; and The New Managers (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom).