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In the dynamic landscape of modern business, the quest for authentic leadership has become an essential cornerstone for success. As CEO of a growing SaaS company, I am constantly challenged with opportunities to stray from value-centric decision-making and practices.
Leaders who take the time to establish and stay true to core values are guided by a compass that allows them to lead with strength and conviction. Values-based leadership — or authentic leadership — emphasizes putting values and ethics at the forefront of decision-making. I believe an authentic approach to leadership creates a stronger organizational culture, builds trust and loyalty and drives innovation.
Research seems to support this view as well, revealing that authentic leaders have a positive impact on employee attitudes and behavior that ultimately leads to enhanced organizational performance. Other studies on authentic leadership within the context of entrepreneurial ventures found that if employees in “newer, small organizations view their founder or entrepreneur as an authentic leader, it can have a positive impact on their work‐related attitudes and happiness.”
A recent Gartner study also indicated that 82% of employees say it’s important for their organization to see them as a person, not just an employee. This is critical in an age where employers are held more accountable for creating a workplace that embraces diversity and fosters an inclusive environment built on mutual respect and individual worth. So, beyond ensuring that you are at a company that also supports you in living out your values, here are a few ways to help you develop and embrace a value-driven approach to leadership:
Related: Heart-Based Leadership Makes People and Businesses Come Alive
1. Determine your core values
In a McKinsey interview last year, Harvard professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George noted, “before you can become an authentic leader, you have to know who you are. That’s your true north: your most deeply held beliefs, your values, the principles you lead by, and what inspires you. Where do you find fulfillment? Until you define your true north, you won’t know what your purpose is.”
Ask yourself, what core values matter to you and what fills your cup? Use honest self-reflection to think about your most deeply held beliefs and values and how you can apply them to your leadership approach. Once you determine those core values, you can lean into them to more effectively set clear priorities and make better decisions in good times and in challenging times. My core values are family, faith, integrity, character and grit.
2. Lead yourself before you lead others
To lead well also requires you to walk the talk. It is important to apply your core values to leading yourself. For example, if one of your values is setting boundaries and making time for things that bring you joy, then be protective of that time.
As CEO, I have demands of my time for nearly every hour of the day. In a hybrid and remote world, it’s increasingly difficult to create healthy boundaries of time and space as there are often expectations to be on 24/7. Establishing boundaries to prioritize time for my family is non-negotiable. That time allocation might fluctuate in different seasons, depending on the needs of my family and the needs of business, but in the spirit of recognizing my core values, it certainly makes it to the top when priorities are determined.
Be disciplined around saying no to the noise and staying true to your values. Because at the end of the day, if you are not protecting and prioritizing your values, then how can you expect others to?
3. Own your voice and choices
Owning your own choices is another key part of staying true to your values. It’s important to understand what your true north is and hold yourself accountable for your choices — even when the path can be harder.
I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked, “How do you travel so much?” or “Why did you have kids if you were going to take a job like this?” First of all— wow. Those comments always stop me in my tracks. Not only has my husband never been asked that question in his career — a great topic for a future article —but it completely undermines his dedication and support of me and our family. It also diminishes the fact that I can be a good mother and a successful leader at the same time.
When those questions arise, there are three ways I can respond. One — ignore it. Two — be defensive and snap back. Or, three — use that as an opportunity to educate that person on a more appropriate lens to consider.
While I know there’s an entire school of thinking that would challenge this approach, in reflection of my core values, I almost always choose to respond in a high-character way. In my experience, when responding aggressively and negatively to that commentary, we often lose the opportunity to coach and educate in real time. I might respond with, “I’m going to make an assumption that what you meant to say was — “Hey, I notice you travel a lot. How does your family manage that?” or “Wow, I don’t know how you do it all!”
As CEO, I have choices on how (and where) I spend my time daily. It is a continual balancing act between my leadership team, my family and other demands. From the outside, some people might only see one lane of my complex world and are quick to judge. I have an opportunity to separate myself from the noise and criticism, own my choices and be confident about where I am focusing my energy in a way that aligns with my own personal values.
Related: The Surprising Secret to Authentic and Powerful Leadership
4. Align growth goals to your values
My attitude has always been that I am the decision maker of how I use and spend my time and the vast majority of the growth I’ve made in my career has been outside the working day. Most leaders I talk to made sacrifices somewhere in their lives to prioritize and make space for career growth. For me, on a daily level, that means that I choose not to spend a lot of time watching TV and movies, scrolling social media, or cruising through entertainment blogs. I might not be the next LinkedIn influencer or be up to speed on the latest hype trends, but I have embraced that those things are not as important to me as other areas of growth. When mapping out your goals for the year—whether for business or personal growth — consider aligning them to support, protect and prioritize your core values.
Staying true to your values can guide your decisions, creating the clarity you need to be a more effective, confident leader. These values are your true north, providing the foundation for moving your company forward with integrity and transparency that build a culture of trust, loyalty and innovation.