Forget about values; let's see some vision


Gordon Brown may have stopped short of breaking into a chorus of “We Are The World” (just!) but, bursting with all the usual platitudes about shared values, his speech to both houses on Capitol Hill still had me dangerously close to reaching for the sick bucket.

You see, I have some real issues with values-based leadership and communications. Three issues, to be precise…

1. Zero differentiation

The most obvious problem is that most sets of company values are so completely vacuous – the same tired bullet-pointed list of words, many of which (it so often turns out) are identical to competitors and which, in any event, say nothing meaningful about the organisation…

Customer-focused? Well, whom else exactly is a business supposed to focus on if it means to sell anything?

Integrity? I hardly expected you to tell me that you’re duplicitous!

Quality? And there’s me thinking you were intentionally going to sell me something sub-standard!

These aren’t differentiators; they’re pre-requisites for playing the game.

2. Zero authenticity

The second major problem with values-based communications is that it’s almost inevitable that someone in the senior management team will, at some point, act in a manner that directly contravenes those supposedly treasured values.

For example, it’s a bit rich the UK government lecturing the banks on responsibility right now when a senior cabinet minister has been happily playing the system to obtain £116,000 in allowances for her supposed second home (allegedly!).

Values only carry any meaning if they are a true reflection of internal culture – those fundamental, immutable beliefs about an organisation that everyone shares in common.

3. Zero direction

Thirdly, if values are meant to act as some sort of moral compass, guiding actions and behaviours, that compass actually needs to be pointing somewhere.

The trouble is that, all too often, it seems that values-based leadership is seen as an alternative, rather than complementary, to the articulation of a clear vision – the easy escape route for a leadership team uncomfortable with ambiguity.

If the compass is pointing somewhere, it tends to be backwards not forwards, seeking to create a common bond by eulogising heritage.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, if it’s not accompanied by a parallel process that sets out a shared vision of a changed future, it’s extremely hard for people to internalise those values, to understand their immediate relevance, and to adapt their behaviours accordingly.

The result? Lots of great words and intentions, but nothing in the way of material change and progress.

And that, in essence, is my beef with Brown’s speech. The rhetoric may have implied that there are no sacred cows, but the reality is that the major question marks still stand – especially in respect of notions of growth.


2 thoughts on “Forget about values; let's see some vision

  1. Hugh Barton-Smith

    It’s the old producer centric as opposed to customer centric problem, the sense of obligation to reiterate identity rather than setting out a goal that will pull people along a path to achieve actual results. The response to a values statement is inevitably more passive than the more active reaction of buying into a vision.
    As the threats to our ways of life pile up, there is an increasingly desperate need for a vision to keep our values alive.
    Gordon Brown’s speech in essence glorified past achievements that run a major risk of being rendered redundant. Perhaps such utterances should be legally obliged to be followed by a codicil: “Past performance is no guarantee of future progress”. 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s