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Staying true to your values: Lessons from the leaders


As the party leaders in the UK election found, your decisions and judgement can come back to haunt you. Alan Ward gives tips on how leaders and coaches can stay true to their values, especially in tense situations.

Abraham Lincoln did not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday. I wonder what he would have thought about the UK political party leaders during the recent electioneering. Each of the three main parties had cause for reflection over gaffes and pledges that quickly turned into public derision and detracted from their overall messages.

Most highly publicised during the campaign itself was Gordon Brown's 'bigoted woman' comment made supposedly in private but picked up by microphone about Labour supporter Gillian Duffy, who had challenged him over the economy. Whatever the circumstances, many believe that it was a crucial revelation from which the Labour leader was unable to recover, ultimately causing the party's downfall.

As the prospect of a hung parliament where no party has more than 50% of MPs in the House of Commons became more likely, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats declared he would offer his party's constructive support to whichever party got the most seats, as this would best honour the wishes of the voting public. What outcries there were in the immediate aftermath of the election results, when it was discovered that Clegg's party representatives were in fact in negotiation with both major parties to strike a deal. Accusations of duplicity and insincerity were aimed directly at the Liberal Democrat leader, casting doubt over his integrity and trustworthiness whichever party they would finally choose to support.

And perhaps the biggest banana skin for Tory leader, David Cameron, was one of his own placing.  Replying that his best political joke was Nick Clegg, who was then a significant rival in the Premiership race, he had to retract the comment two weeks later on the lawn at 10 Downing Street as he stood shoulder to shoulder with the man he had now appointed deputy prime minister.

How perfect we can be in our own decisions and judgement of others with the benefit of hindsight.

Business context

Even though they can be subjected to more intense media attention and used to influence large swathes of the population, these situations are not confined to the political arena. They happen in business all the time.

At a corporate level, one organisation may ridicule the strategy of another, perhaps appealing to the emotions of its clients in the name of common sense. But then as market forces, new best practice and economic pressures change, the 'ridiculous' strategy may be adopted through necessity. A clear example of this has happened in the passenger airline business where low-cost operators introduced the concept of deconstructing the flight product and charging for each element separately. Despite the potential effect on passenger experience, many scheduled airlines have now reluctantly accepted the principles and levy additional charges for checked baggage, seat reservations and other components they previously offered for 'free'. The effect on customer perception and brand loyalty can be damaging, especially where it is considered that business principles are being sacrificed for profits.

Similarly, as we are beginning to see increased merger and acquisition activity, there are more aggressive approaches and spirited defences of corporate positions. In the recent Kraft bid for Cadbury there were strong arguments made on both sides with positioning stances taken that were intended to serve the cause in each case. However, after the hostile takeover was sealed, Kraft has come under fire for breaking its promise to keep open a Cadbury factory near Bristol. Local management now have to maintain performance knowing that some 400 workers are to lose their jobs, with production moving to Poland. How will employees respond to future changes and commitments?

At the more personal, individual level we should be aware of our actions and emotional state when moving from one employer to another. Imagine, for example, that you left Lloyds TSB a couple of years ago seeking new challenges and career advancement, which you found in the newly formed Halifax Bank of Scotland. How would you feel now being subsumed back into the recently enlarged Lloyds Banking Group, possibly returning to the same area working with former colleagues again? How would it affect performance if you left on unfriendly terms or burned bridges in some way?

Coaching context

In the absence of a crystal ball or the benefits of time travel, how can we be sure of doing 'the right thing', especially when operating under pressure?

1. Remember your moral compass
Just as a compass helps us set direction by indicating magnetic north, we have our own internal pointer that is based on strongly held personal values and beliefs. They will impact on your thinking and behaviours and become obvious to those around you particularly in tense situations or unguarded moments. If you are not aware of these, under stress you may behave, think or feel at odds with the image you are trying to promote.  Write down your five to ten core values – the ones that represent the essence of who you really are. Then define them so they aren't just words on a page - capture the spirit of what each value means to you. Be aware of how they drive your actions.

2. Distinguish facts from fantasy
Be very clear about things we know that we know, things that we know we don't know and things we don't know we don't know.  Donald Rumsfeld's "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns". When making or listening to statements, ask yourself whether they are fact or fantasy. Orators sometimes use the inherent confusion as a dishonest trick to influence decisions or carry popular opinion.  Phrases such as 'I think', 'it appears that', 'we'll try' and 'it should' often signify wishful thinking rather than 'the truth'. Consider whether the speaker, even if it you, is expressing (i) an opinion or judgement based on previous experience, (ii) data or certainty from current knowledge, or (iii) speculation on what might happen in the future.

3. Respect other human beings
Treating people with respect makes your world a nicer place to live. If the golden rule is to treat people the way you like to have them treat you, then the platinum rule is to treat people the way they like to be treated. Surely, this is a mark of civilised society? Some simple recommendations from

  • Listen to others when they speak, try to learn something from the other person
  • Be aware of stereotyping people, don't go along with prejudices and racist attitudes
  • Show interest and appreciation for other people's cultures and backgrounds
  • Value other people's opinions, be considerate of their likes and dislikes
  • Don't pressure someone to do something he or she doesn't want to do

Beware tense situations, as they can trigger you to act out of character. Stay on your guard and always treat others with respect. My advice is act with integrity, stick to your core values and try not to burn your bridges with people.

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist.

He chairs's Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business.

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