Of all the qualities that underpin effective leadership, perhaps none is more important than holding true to authentic values that help bring about success. Indeed, according to Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr, values-based leadership is the only true style of leadership that separates the great from the rest.
Kraemer Jr – a management professor and author of From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership – believes people become effective leaders when they are rooted in “who they are and what matters most” to them. This, he says, better equips leaders to deal with any situation that might arise.
Most of us are drawn to values-based leaders. These are people who have clear principles, they are honest and congruent in their deeds, they truly inspire those around them, and they feel a greater sense of gratitude towards others than they expect to receive in return.
Leaders driven by their core values inspire loyalty and commitment in their followers because they help them to find purpose and meaning in what they do, and they bring out the best in the people who work alongside them.
But sometimes, value-leadership can fall short of expectations, whether shortcomings are perceived or genuine.
In their paper, When values backfire: Leadership, attribution, and disenchantment in a values-driven organisation, Sandra E. Cha and Amy C. Edmondson explore why values-based leaders, despite their intentions, can end up being judged negatively as having failed in their role or mission within an organisation.
Charismatic leaders will often create high expectations of their leadership, as they inspire, motivate and enthuse followers to share in their values and vision. Such leaders are held in high esteem as followers gain a sense of empowerment and potential when buying into their leader’s ideals.
However, if there are feelings that the leader is hypocritical in their actions, this can lead to disenchantment, defined by Cha and Edmondson as “a transition in which feelings of violation – a particular blend of disappointment and anger emotions – and loss of trust in the leader have undermined enthusiasm generated earlier by the leader’s emphasis on organisational values.”
One interesting insight from the paper highlights a phenomenon called hypocrisy attribution, where employees will call out a leader for perceived hypocrisy, but “without considering that he might have alternative, legitimate explanations for his actions”.
In their conclusion, Cha and Edmondson submit that the challenge for leaders lies in reaping the benefits of strong organisational values, while avoiding the pitfall of perceived hypocrisy.
The single most important quality in facing this challenge is transparency through open communication.
While it’s true that employees can be quick to make self-interested judgments without consideration for the leader (e.g. “Why have I been given this task? Don’t they know how much I have to do already?), leaders do themselves no favours by failing to address concerns which, valid or otherwise, remain very real in the mind of the employee.
As Cha and Edmondson imply, employees are experts in making snap judgments; however, these judgments can surely fester only for as long as effective communication is lacking from the leader in addressing concerns and explaining why certain decisions have been taken. Kraemer Jr suggests that there is a “widespread lack of confidence in leadership”, and that it’s the job of leaders to regain and maintain trust.
Certainly, some leaders may be guilty of incongruence, cutting corners, and other shortcomings that might lead to hypocrisy attribution, but there is likely many more who simply neglect to explain exactly what they’re doing and why.
On the part of the employee, it is perhaps wise to consider that leadership is a complex matter and, like all humans, leaders don’t always get it right, and sometimes need time to figure out the right course of action and support in implementing that action.
To believe leaders know it all and should execute their role perfectly and without fuss is not only naïve on the part of the employee, but serves inadvertently to place the same standards on those who make such a judgment.
Only through open communication can both sides come to understand the position of the other, which may initially be quite the challenge to undertake, but inevitably it will prove to the betterment of the well-being of all concerned, as well as the overall performance of the organisation.