As a leadership consultant and mindfulness teacher I have observed that most organisations and their leaders follow their stated values only to the degree that following them does not cause any financial or reputation hardship.
In other words, if following a wholesome value in any way threatens results or personal and company reputation, it will typically not be followed. Is it any wonder that we’re so cynical about company values statements and branding efforts?
Is it a surprise that people roll their eyes when we speak of them? They’re just waiting for the values to be violated when they conflict with lower-level needs. Cynicism is a direct result of value hypocrisy.
A social science study conducted by researchers J.M. Darley and C.D. Batson drives home this point. The subjects of this study were students at Princeton Theological Seminary—men who were studying to go into religious ministry. As each subject arrived, he was told that he was to give a talk that would be recorded in another building. On the way to the building, where the subject was to perform his talk, he encountered a ‘victim’ slumped in a doorway. The researchers wanted to ascertain the conditions under which the subject would stop to help the victim.
Half of the subjects were assigned to talk on the Good Samaritan Parable, and the other half were assigned a different topic. Some of the subjects were told they were late and should hurry, some were told they had just enough time to get to the recording room, and some were told they would arrive early.
These researchers found that 63% of subjects that were in no hurry stopped to help, 45% of those in a moderate hurry stopped, and 10% of those that were in a great hurry stopped. It made no difference whether or not the students were assigned to talk on the Good Samaritan Parable, nor did it matter what their religious outlook was.
The point is this: When we are under pressure, we will invariably and routinely violate the values that we profess to hold so dearly. We lose perspective of what is really important and we act from more reactive, even primitive parts of our brains. What is needed is a capacity to be balanced and keep perspective under pressure.
There is a practice that reliably helps us recover perspective, and fast: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice of being present, not only to what is in front of us, but also to our internal processes, our reactions, viewpoints, and thoughts. By cultivating inner and outer awareness and focus, we engage the prefrontal cortex of our brains, which gives us perspective, balance, and reason.
Values combined with mindfulness help us find the real, practical capacity to be honest in difficult circumstances, and to stay true to what we value when the pressure is on.
Everyone wants to be led by leaders who consistently operate from wholesome values. In fact, the research proves this. We are inspired to engage about 30% more when our leaders walk their talk. When they don’t, we become disillusioned and disengaged.
So firstly ask yourself, what are the values you are operating from on a daily basis? Can you list them immediately, or do you have to pause and think about it? If you’re like most leaders, it takes a while to remember your stated values. And if you can’t remember them off the top of your head, what is the likelihood that they’re actually influencing your behaviour in real time—especially when you’re under pressure and duress?
Making your values conscious is the beginning of a mindful leadership journey. Being aware of them through cultivating a daily mindfulness practice is the next step. As a very beginning practice, start paying attention to your body when you are under pressure, and then slow down, feel your feet and breathe before you act. This process will reengage your prefrontal cortex, and you will be able to engage more mindfully.