A Daily Checklist for Values-Based Leadership

Building seasoned and emerging nonprofit executives isn’t all nuts and bolts on fundraising, programs, and board development. Keynote speeches that I particularly enjoy giving–and much of the feedback we have received over the years about Rich TIPS–often involve topics around leadership, values and ethical decision-making.

There are four value circles that every nonprofit professional exists within today and must be mindful of: personal values, organizational values, community values, and sector-wide values. Here are ten ways to measure each day that you are always striving to ‘walk the talk’–that is, ensuring that as nonprofit executives we must always lead others from a core of deeply held values, modeling the highest ethical behavior and representing the sector proudly.

  1. Appreciate the origins of your personal values. From early childhood, we are influenced by not only family but also teachers/mentors, religion, literature, popular culture, and so on as we mature into adults and find what I like to call our “True North.” As a lifelong learner, you are well served to appreciate the adults, teachers, pastors, authors, etc. who have made you the leader you are today. Revisit their lessons as often as you wish.
  2. Seek alignment between your words and your actions. Far more important than articulating your deepest values is demonstrating them. Be mindful that you cannot “signal right, but turn left.”
  3. Be authentic in your demonstrated, consistent values over time. A leader whose actions are reliably based on a clear value system is a leader who is predictable and therefore worthy of trust.
  4. Model accountability to yourself first. It is critically important to invite the same transparency (and, yes, scrutiny) of your own work and behavior that you would expect to place on others, regardless of their status in the organization.
  5. Make only those promises you intend to keep. This is the origin of the old expression, “… your word is good.” If you promised it, make it so. As with so many of these tips, one digression where what you insist publicly is not a match with your own performance can greatly harm peoples’ faith in your ability to lead.
  6. Tell the truth as fast as you can. This is not merely integrity but also being forthright in a way that respects others’ feelings. This is revealing all the information possible in a clear, no-nonsense way in the name of helping others understand (not in the name of protecting yourself). Key to this practice is always keeping in mind the people who are most directly affected by the information you are providing. Remember that news that is difficult to hear should probably be delivered without a lot of noise, nuance or metaphor. Bad news rarely improves over time if it is withheld. Keep it simple and true.
  7. Choose words that inspire appropriate emotion and that people can relate to. Do not talk from behind a shield of impersonal or impassive “corporate-speak” or use jargon. Words have a great deal of power, both to inspire and to enflame. Be careful. Think about the contentious debates in our society over the role of religion in public life, immigration reform, health care, or the civil rights of the GLBT or disability community. Words can be weapons. Did the phrase “death panel” do anything to genuinely further the debate over health care?
  8. Remember that the little things are the big things. When you seek to always align your words with your deeds, and demonstrate the highest values in the simplest of everyday tasks, then there is no example of an act, a word, or a gesture ‘small’ enough not to matter. When you are leading a nonprofit organization, you are the mission and the purpose. Accept that with your role, you are in the spotlight at all times.
  9. Be obsessed with fairness. Take a thoughtful and balanced approach to everything, from how parking spaces are assigned to defining organization-wide evaluation strategies for next year.
  10. Research, relate to, and most importantly, respect whatever community you are in. Local history, geographic pride, experiences both uplifting and traumatic, generational differences, deeply rooted values and traditions–all must inform how you behave and serve others.

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