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The importance of values and values-based leadership

Written by on 19 December 2012

When I first started writing about the importance of social values and values-based leadership it was a relatively unknown term. Although a number of influential individuals and organisations are beginning to recognise the importance of values, it is still hugely under-represented in the research community.

Societies are built on a mutual need to work together, central to the basic principals of society is the recognition that an individual can gain and leverage benefits from collective capabilities. In order to maintain a society the community needs a focus. This focus needs to be shared through a common understanding of the benefits of the society and the underpinning principals of the group.

Over time this understanding within social groups began to be formalised into rules, some are unwritten and others are enshrined in formal structures such as laws. However they are articulated they are important foundations of a society’s sustainability. As a society matures, flourishes and then declines the transitions can be traced through the prescriptive nature of these laws and other social control mechanisms such as taxation.

Religious organisations also play a critical part in defining and informing a society’s social values. It is interesting to note that no significant society has been established without an individual (or number of) deity figures. Many academics have tried to explain the importance of religion to the human psyche, but without a doubt the nature and construct of the central deity system acts as a witness screen for that society’s binding beliefs and values.

Combining the nature and articulation of religion, laws, and social behaviours provides a rich picture of the nature and dynamics of a society’s values. The World Values Survey is a global network of social scientists based in over 50 countries; they have conducted values surveys for over 30 years, building a comprehensive understanding of values across the globe.

The various finds of the World Values Survey are becoming more widely understood and utilised by Governments and businesses around the world. The understanding of the types and nature of values in different societies has a profound influence on strategic decision making. Just as the business community consider the likely success of a merger or acquisition from a cultural fit, foreign policy should also consider the sensitivity and differences of different social values.

The World Values Survey has produced a map of values as they are articulated across the world. This interesting and informative pictorial representation provides insight into how different communities have evolved a values framework based on context and social need. Whilst some of the findings are perhaps not so surprising, it is important to note that individual decision making is a complex multidimensional construct which derives a great deal from the individual’s values framework. Our understanding of right and wrong, legitimate and sustainability are based on these social values.

Survival values Chart
Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, "Changing Mass Priorities: The Link Between Modernization and Democracy." Perspectives on Politics June 2010 (vol 8, No. 2) page 554.

The increasing interest in values and their relevance for strategic decision making has been highlighted during the international financial crisis and the lack of responsiveness and leadership by so many key figures in government and the business community. The problems with the corporate world’s decision making are well documented. It is interesting to note that in so many cases, it is the actions that individuals have taken, in relation to the social community’s understanding of legitimacy, which has caused so much friction. In short individuals behaving in a way that society deems unjust and unfair.

I believe that we need to rethink the primary function of leadership (as opposed to management). If we agree that leadership is intrinsically linked to leading people (a social construct) there must be a connection, a compelling narrative that fuses communities together in a common purpose. This narrative must be based on themes that individuals and societies can recognize and identify with. Crystallizing the function of leadership also focuses the need for developing an understanding of social values, the narrative, and selecting / identifying those individuals that reflect and are capable of leading these communities through challenging times.

This article is based on continuing research and consultancy that Dr Ivan Yardley has been conducting in association with Cranfield University.

For more information please contact Ivan on 0121 308 4280 or email info@zulucreative.co.uk


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