Leadership Principle 1: Model the Way

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do Posner and Kouzes mean by “model the way” in the context of leadership? What can you, as a leader, do to instill your way of doing things in your subordinates?

“Model the way” is the first principle of Barry Posner and James M. Kouzes’s outstanding leadership. You can do this by ensuring that your team members understand what you stand for and believe, and then by demonstrating how your values can increase the success of your organization and the overall happiness of your team.

There are two guidelines for “modeling the way”: 1) establishing your values, and 2) modeling your values. We’ll discuss these two concepts below.

Guideline 1: Establish Your Values

To model the way, you must first establish it by defining the values to model for your team to follow. Establishing your values is a two-part process:

  • Figuring out your values
  • Affirming shared values

Figure Out Your Values

Your values are the enduring beliefs underpinning your actions—the principles that will guide your decisions. Clear values help guide your behaviors and choices so that you stay on the path toward your goal. Your values:

  • Influence your moral judgments, your goals, and how you interact with others
  • Justify how and why you accomplish things
  • Determine how you react to adversity

For example, if you value diversity and believe innovation comes from a collaboration of different views and mindsets, then you’ll know how to react if people with different viewpoints keep getting shut down in meetings. If you value collaboration, you’ll know how to react when your salespeople aren’t sharing information with each other.  

Studies show that having a clear leadership philosophy has several benefits: 

  • Benefits for you: When leaders are clear about their values, they score highly on measures of confidence, pride in their job, and dedication to their organization’s success. Leaders who are not clear about their values score lower on these benchmarks. 
  • Benefits for your team: People who work under leaders with clear leadership philosophies report far more job satisfaction, team spirit, pride, and willingness to work hard than those who don’t. 
  • Benefits for your organization: A landmark study of more than 100 CEOs and 8,000 employees found that organizations run by leaders with clear values enjoyed five times greater returns than organizations run by less-clear leaders. 

Affirm Your Shared Values

Once you’ve properly communicated your values, help your team members align their values with the values of your organization. This is important for the long-term health of an organization:

  • Through shared values, you create an understanding of shared expectations.
  • Your constituents will be far more committed to and engaged in an organization they feel matches their beliefs. They have more energy, work harder, and stick around longer.  
  • When your constituents agree on a common cause, their energy accumulates: Each one catches the others’ enthusiasm. 

Strong teams are built on shared values. If team members have differing values and priorities, they often stop coordinating their efforts and instead work separately toward individual goals. When a team works disjointedly like this, they can cross wires and duplicate efforts. For this reason, companies with a strong set of shared values far outperform other companies. Research confirms that such companies have faster rates of profit growth, higher stock prices, stronger rates of job creation, and lower levels of turnover. 

This does not mean that everyone on your team must hold the exact same values—such a standard would allow for no diversity of opinion or disagreements, both of which are essential in a healthy organization. However, leaders should aim to ensure that their constituents agree on some basic, overall, core values. 

Proactively Start Conversations

To affirm your values with your team, proactively engage in conversations that talk about these values. Explicitly naming and discussing your values:

  • Aligns and clarifies expectations between you and your constituents
  • Reminds people why they are involved with your organization, prompting a renewal of energy and enthusiasm 
  • Encourages people to find more meaning in their work by helping them see how their work connects with their sense of identity
  • Fosters a sense of ownership of the organization’s mission, which encourages greater commitment

There are many ways you can spark conversations about values. For example, you might:

  • Meet with people individually and then discuss the team’s opinions at a group meeting. 
  • Relate a personal story at a staff meeting, that illustrates how you used your values in either your personal or professional life, and allow your team to respond and share similar experiences. 
  • Have your team fill out a questionnaire about their background, hobbies, what kind of work they like, what role they hope to play on the team, and what they respect in coworkers, and then have everyone share at a staff meeting. 

Guideline 2: Model Your Values

Once you’ve established and clearly articulated your values, model them in your behavior. When you live your values, others will know you’re serious, and you expect them to live them, too. It’s easy to say you believe in certain values, but harder to follow through and live them, so when others see you doing just that—practicing what you preach—you gain credibility, and people will more enthusiastically follow your lead.

Further, when you model your values, you educate people; you guide, teach, and coach them on how to align their values with those of your organization. People learn better by seeing an example than by merely hearing the words. To model your values:

  1. Live the shared values of your organization.
  2. Show others how to live the shared values.

Live the Shared Values of Your Organization

As a leader, you’re the face of your organization to the public, and this means you represent its shared values. Other people associate you with your organization and will judge it by the actions you take. 

You’re also the face of your organization to your constituents (employees, volunteers, or other members). As such, you set the tone for your organization and how it—and everyone within it—will operate. Research shows that direct reports mimic the behavior of their leader. Leaders who are visible to their direct reports and who demonstrate positive attitudes, work conscientiously toward their goals, and make constructive changes when needed are likely to have direct reports who do the same.

You broadcast your values in many ways, some of which are:

  • Where you devote your time and attention: Schedule your calendar and structure your agenda to match your stated values. For example, if you say you value your clients, patients, students, and so on, make yourself available to them.
  • How you use words and phrases: Your language reflects how you think about roles and relationships. Avoid words and phrases that focus on hierarchy (such as boss, employee, top-down, and rank-and-file), and instead use words that focus on relationships (like associates, colleagues, and team members).
  • How you pose questions: Ask purposeful questions designed to inform, guide, and emphasize your values. For example, ask, “What do you need that we can provide so you can finish the project?” to emphasize collaboration, rather than, “Why haven’t you finished the project?” which emphasizes blame.
  • Your openness to feedback and how you handle criticism: You broadcast how you feel about others’ opinions with whether or not you’re open to feedback.

Show Others How to Live the Shared Values

When you model your values, you show others how to live the shared values of your organization. This is crucial because your role as a leader is not only to personally represent the values of your organization, but also to ensure that your constituents represent them as well—your constituents are the face of your organization to the public just as you are, and the public will judge your organization’s values based on how they observe your team members acting. 

In addition, your own team members will watch what you expect of their peers—or what you let slide. If they see that you consistently hold other team members up to your stated values, they’ll feel more committed to them. If they see you accepting behavior that you have verbally discouraged, they won’t judge your commitment to your values as sincere.

There are many ways you can guide and coach your team to live your shared values. Some specific ways are: 

  • Face Unplanned Incidents. Unplanned problems are an opportunity to focus your team members on what’s critical and to show them how your values can create solutions. For example, if a colleague has to take a leave of absence during an important phase of a project in which she plays an integral part, you can demonstrate how your stated values of, say, teamwork and flexibility can help the project stick to its timeline if you step in to help manage it. 
  • Tell Stories. Stories teach people how the world works—what to do, what to avoid, what’s important, and what’s possible—and the human brain has evolved to pay close attention to them. Your team members will better understand the rules if they hear a story about them—what happened when someone broke them or how someone was rewarded for following them—than they will if they just read a list of rules. 
  • Use Systems and Processes. As a leader, ensure that your team can follow your values even when you’re not physically present. To do this, establish clear and practical procedures that stand in for your decision-making when you’re not around. For example, you could put reward systems in place to dispense benefits, perks, and promotions according to when team members live your values.
Leadership Principle 1: Model the Way

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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