Core values are our north star and guidance as leaders. When in chaos, challenges and ethical dilemmas, our values shine the light to help a leader decide. I invited two leaders to share their thoughts on this question, what values can leaders be anchored in?
Madhumita Venkataraman (DEI Practitioner & Mental Health Professional; Founder- Diversity Dialogues):
Madhu, I know you from the time you supported me in a testimonial on my book Step Up. I see you as a leader who embodies openness and gentle challenge together. You are a creative person who writes provocative and moving stories on diversity and inclusion.
I am always struck by the simplicity in these stories. You are a sensitive soul and may you take that strength into the important work you are doing in the world. As a DEI practitioner and a mental health professional empathy shines through in all that you put out. More power to your leadership Madhu. We need more of your kind to change the world. Keep writing and shaking us up gently the way you do!
Gunjan Zutshi (Co-Founder, Agilesatva Consulting LLP):
Gunjan, what I value the most in you is your capacity to question the status quo. It has been a long association of seeing you develop your strength quietly, owning who you are and the stands you take. I have enjoyed partnering with you on many leadership initiatives when you held L&D and OD roles in your organisation.
I am struck by your understanding in holding a group’s process and your work with the unconscious in a group. Being a psychotherapist you bring the unique lens of how to look at an individual’s narrative and you use it shiningly in all the transformative work you do. I also know you as an involved parent with a beautiful balance of nurture and challenge. Keep provoking and asking us your bright provocative questions. Through it I learn from you as you do it with such ease.
Where Madhumita anchors her leadership:
Leaders do different things to demonstrate values. I draw the following as the core values of leadership based on my own experiences and having observed other leaders.
An important part of communication is listening. It involves listening with intent, understanding with care, and demonstrating curiosity with a certain level of humility. Listen to be open to different kinds of ideas, and insights. Listening is a tool to demonstrate both curiosity and care.
2) Asking, and not assuming.
Ask with openness to understand and support what people can or cannot do, instead of assuming. Ask with the right intent be it to a woman going on maternity leave, a father taking paternity leave, or a person with disabilities.
3) Being vulnerable, and expressing the truth.
Communicate the truth with honesty and admit to one’s mistakes instead of pretending that everything is perfect. I value honesty very deeply in leadership.
4) Recognising that there is nothing that is completely perfect.
Instead of striving for perfection, have a growth mindset and strive for progress. This was not easy for me, but I have learnt it over time. Being a leader and having a team with different people has made me realise there are different ways of doing things.
The definition of excellence and perfection changes and the definition that you hold is not the ‘only’ way. I have learnt to value different approaches and different styles of working, being and living.
5) Have fun and enjoy what you do.
From the leaders I have worked with I have seen they have a lot of passion towards work and fun. In doing so they are able to carry on for a long period of time. They move from being an individual contributor to a leader. To experience that joy is a big inspiration for the team. Underlying the goal and ambition is to have tremendous joy and respect for the work that you are doing.
I believe If a leader practises these 5 aspects consistently with intention, they begin to exhibit the qualities of humility, curiosity, empowering others, caring, empathy, honesty, and enjoying work.
Where Gunjan anchors her leadership:
Leadership these days comes with its challenges. I will start with what I see as “these days” because it tells what I see as relevant values and principles that leaders must show up with.
These days feel like the days of rising inequality, of hardening stances of us vs them, of othering as the way of relating, of exclusion and oppression of marginalised and minority views, of seeing questioning as dissent and short term gains trumping long term investment in building sustainable structures and institutions.
In this context, values that matter the most to me are:
A lot is spoken about leaders needing to have passion, but rarely do we talk about leaders who also must have compassion. At best we talk about empathy and empathic leadership, but compassionate leadership is something we shy away from.
There is growing evidence that mere empathy is not enough. It can actually be dangerous as it creates a sense of ‘us’ and ‘not us’. We may be empathic to those we see as similar or issues and people we can relate to and at the same time, lack empathy for those whom we see as different. Empathy is inert, while compassion moves us to action, even for those who may be different from us. That’s what makes it a value that leaders must show up with.
Inclusion to me is another important value. Not the one which is usually talked about when organisations talk about their D&I strategies. Real inclusion allows leaders to create safe spaces where all differences can be expressed, heard and worked with. Leaders must regularly ask themselves if they have done enough to build inclusive workspaces.
Compassionate leadership may be rare in these times. It may even seem like an idealist wish, but then one of the leadership tasks is to hold ourselves and others to some ideals which are worth fighting for. Else, what is our leadership really for?
These two leaders’ responses moved me and energised me. Their responses highlight the significance of asking what is important now. Given the times we lead in. Given the nature of teams we lead. Defining our core values and articulating it for yourself can be a valuable exercise for a leader to start your year with. Then all you need to do is allow these values to guide you like a GPS.