How to Stay Okay With Who You Are and Still Meet the Demands of Leadership

As a leader, you're called upon to make judgement calls all day long. Approving budgets, coaching employees, setting strategy, enforcing policies, leading difficult conversations, serving customers.
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As a leader, you're called upon to make judgement calls all day long. Approving budgets, coaching employees, setting strategy, enforcing policies, leading difficult conversations, serving customers. These responsibilities (and countless others) require you to check in with your internal compass and decide: am I on track?

And what happens when your compass points in one direction, but the outside world expects something different?

Recognize this situation? You have what Hyrum Smith calls a "Values Gap," which he defines as "a gap between 'what I am doing' and 'what matters most to me.'" Smith is a long-time advocate of values-based productivity and co-founder of the training company 3Gaps. In an ideal world, the choices you make as a leader line up perfectly with your organization's demands. But the world isn't ideal. Your values are highly personal, and sometimes gaps exist.

How can you stay "okay" with who you are on the inside, yet meet the demands of your leadership role?

First off, you need to stop over-thinking things. Shelley Row, a professional engineer and self-described "over-thinker," says that leaders who dial in to both their "thinking" and "feeling" selves are better able discern when there's a disconnect in personal values. A former transportation executive, Row now works with leaders to help them understand how to quell over-thinking and draw upon that part of the brain wired for intuition and feelings. Row, author of Think Less, Live More: Lessons from a Recovering Over-Thinker, has studied the neuroscience related to how people make decisions. "When you have that little nagging feeling, that's your brain trying to bring [a different part of] your own intelligence to you," says Row. When you tune in to your true feelings about a situation, you can then chart a course for taking action that honors your values.

All this talk about "feelings" making you squeamish? You're not alone. Leaders shy away from talking about using feelings to dictate decisions because "it feels illegitimate in our data-driven world," says Bob Anderson. Anderson is Chairman and Chief Development Officer of The Leadership Circle, a leadership development consultancy. Anderson, whose clients include Dana Corporation and the University of Notre Dame, finds that alignment to one's values figures prominently in leadership effectiveness. Anderson's company tracks its clients' leadership effectiveness, as rated by a 360 degree feedback process. Leaders who are clear about how to bring their values into their work are rated twice as effective as those rated more "reactive" in response to their surroundings and interpersonal interactions. In his book, Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results (co-authored with Bill Adams), Anderson writes that highly effective leaders ask, "How can I make my life and my leadership a creative expression of what matters most?"

It's staying connected to "what matters most" that's the tricky part. After all, the work world is filled with compromise. Sometimes it feels as if that gap between what you value and what you're doing seems impossible to close. But if you can close that gap? It's powerful. "It's the path to inner peace," says Smith. He doesn't make this claim lightly. Smith has taught values-based decision-making for nearly 40 years. He founded the Franklin Quest Institute in the early 1980s and was a co-founder of time management powerhouse Franklin Covey. When I interviewed Smith for his most recent book The 3 Gaps: Are You Making a Difference? he told me, "Everybody is afraid to talk about 'inner peace.' But the fact is, the human being has a natural need for inner peace. Or, just call it an internal 'okay-ness.' If I'm 'okay' internally, I'm going to do what my value system says is important to me."

Let's say you've listened to your inner voice and have heard it loud and clear: it's time take a potentially risky stand. Now what? You have to speak up, which requires courage. Not only might you fear how others will react, you might also doubt yourself. Stand tall in your leadership resolve. As Anderson notes, "There is no safe way to be great. And there is no great way to be safe." Typically the type of courage required in organizations isn't one that requires harm to one's physical safety. "Mostly," writes Anderson, "The courage required is the courage to tell the truth."

What truths are you willing to tell in order to get your values in line with your leadership? How are you going to achieve your "internal okay-ness?" Keep in mind that truth-telling doesn't need to be some huge tell-all in which you slay every evil dragon in your office. Start with the most important -- yet most private truth of all -- being honest with yourself. From there, you can decide when and where to speak up. It will pay off. As Row says, "If you have a big decision to make, values are your grounding. When you remain connected to your values in spite of external circumstances, you become a calm, peaceful, steady presence in the world." And isn't that the kind of leader you aspire to be?

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