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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

Values, Principles, and Beliefs: the leader's moral compass

Updated: Mar 5

A leader is only as effective as his or her moral compass, which plays a crucial role in defining a leader's identity and style.

Take Luca (a made-up name but a real person), an executive in a large organization. Luca is bright, intelligent, and competent, with a promising career projected to take him to the top of his organization. Luca, however, has a flaw: he wants respect but does not give respect to his co-workers. He wants attention but does not pay attention to those who work with him. He demands loyalty from himself and the organization, but he is not loyal. Working with Luca was one of the least pleasant experiences of my career. And just when Luca seemed to be continuing on the fast track, finally those above him noticed his inconsistency and his race came to an abrupt and well-deserved stop.

Luke's inconsistency is a blatant symptom of the absence of what I consider the third fundamental pillar of leadership: the reference system, consisting of values, principles, and beliefs (previous posts going into detail about my view of leadership and the other two pillars are available here, here, and here).

Understanding the difference between these elements is critical to solidifying the third pillar of leadership.

A person seen from behind and sitting on a column looking at the constellation Ursa Minor, where the North Star shines more intensely than the others. Realistic. Vivid colours.
Values, principles and beliefs are our reference system. Image generated with AI

Values: the "why"

Values are the aspects that a person considers important in his life and, therefore, in his leadership. They are the qualities, ideals, and deep beliefs that guide a leader's decisions and actions. For example, some common values may be integrity, responsibility, loyalty, empathy, and respect. Values are universal and tend to remain constant over time.

Although every leader has their own values, these should be aligned with those of the organization in which she or he works. Imagine a manager of an ecological company that does not practice separate waste collection; the dissonance would be evident and this inconsistency could damage her reputation within the team.

Values come into play at all times, but they play a particularly relevant role when a leader finds himself having to make a difficult decision, which has moral implications (for example the need to fire some people or promote some employees). It is at that moment that the North Star of values must shine and guide us in opting for the best solution, even if it is not simple. If we have been consistent with our values, we will be able to face the results of our decision head-on.

A value that I consider fundamental is respect. For me, it means understanding other people, listening to their stories and points of view, and not betraying their trust. I consider it important because it allows me to gain the trust and respect of those around me and to be a positive example for them.

Values are the "why" of what we do and what we believe in and are the source of inspiration for those who are in contact with us. Acting consistently with these values creates trust within a team. As Simon Sinek wrote well in his book “Start with Why”,

“You have to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating that you share the same values and beliefs. You have to talk about your WHY and test it with WHAT you do”

Principles: the "how"

Principles are guidelines or moral rules derived from values. They serve as a "bridge" between values, which are abstract and general concepts about what is considered important, and the concrete actions an individual takes. Principles are thus operationalizations of values, which provide a framework for interpreting and acting in various situations.

For example, if a leader's value is integrity, a related principle might be "always tell the truth even when it is difficult." In my case and taking the value of respect as a reference, my principle is to listen to a person who wants to talk to me carefully, trying not to be distracted by anything else. Both examples highlight another characteristic of principles, which is that they often emerge or become relevant in particular situations.

Thus, principles serve as an ethical foundation on which to base everyday decisions and actions. They are the "how" of what we do.

A Muslim child and a Jewish child embrace each other
The principles serve as an ethical foundation on which to base daily decisions and actions

Beliefs: the “for what”

Beliefs are personal beliefs that influence how a leader interprets the world and situations. They can be based on experience, education, religion, or cultural influences and thus differ widely even among people who share the same values. Beliefs can have a significant impact on a leader's decisions. For example, if a leader has the belief that success comes from perseverance, this belief may drive him or her to persevere even in the most difficult challenges.

There are various types of beliefs. There are the fundamental ones, which are the basic beliefs that a person has about the world, himself, and other people. For example, the belief of "not being able to do a certain thing" could negatively affect the outcome of a job. Then there are normative beliefs, constructed about the way things "should" be. Often, these beliefs concern morality and ethics. The belief that "one should always tell the truth" is, for example, a normative belief. Finally, there are empirical beliefs that can be verified through observation or experience. For example, the belief that "the earth is spherical and revolves around the sun" is an empirical belief.

In other words, beliefs are the "for what" of what we do.

Image of the earth rotating around the sun
Beliefs are the "for what" of what we do, such as the earth revolving around the sun

Importance of the Third Pillar

These values, principles, and beliefs serve as ethical guides for the leader in all facets of his or her life and career. They:

  • guide decisions: values and principles help the leader make ethical and moral decisions. They provide a moral compass when faced with difficult choices.

  • build trust: a leader who adheres to consistent values and principles earns the trust of the people who follow him or her. Consistency between statements and actions is critical to building trust.

  • create a sense of belonging: any social group arises based on shared values, principles, or beliefs. They are a glue that contributes significantly to a sense of belonging to a particular community. The same is true in a professional context, and that is why it is important that a leader and all team members, to work effectively within an organization, share its values.

External Factors Influencing the Third Pillar:

A team and its leader do not operate in an ethical vacuum. On the contrary, we move within contexts that influence -even forcibly- our value system. For example:

  • Social and Cultural Norms: Social and cultural norms, including, as mentioned, those specific to the organization, influence a leader's behavior. In other words, to operate in a given environment, one must adapt to the ethical expectations of society and the work environment.

  • Deontological Aspects: Ethical rules specific to a leader's field or profession must be adhered to. For example, a leader in the medical field must strictly follow the deontological rules of the profession summarized in the "Hippocratic Oath."

  • Corporate Social Responsibility: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a crucial aspect of modern business ethics. It refers to the practice through which companies integrate ethical, social, and environmental considerations into their business operations and their interactions with all stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, local communities, and the environment. Within CSR fall topics such as reducing environmental impact, diversity and inclusion, philanthropy, volunteerism, transparency, and more. In addition to doing the right thing, strong CSR can also bring concrete benefits such as a better reputation, loyal customers, and a stronger market position.

Giving solidity to the third pillar

A leader cannot hope to be effective without a solid "Third Pillar" composed of values, principles, and beliefs. These are not just abstract guidelines, but essential components that define what kind of person he or she is, his or her leadership style, and, ultimately, his or her success within an organization.

An effective leader knows his values, principles, and beliefs and, most importantly, puts them into practice consistently and transparently. This enables him or her to earn the trust of the people around her or him, to create a sense of belonging in his or her team, and to meet challenges with courage and determination.

I invite you to reflect on your reference system: what are your values, principles, and beliefs? How do you manifest them in your leadership? How do you communicate them to others?

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