Monday, March 2, 2015

Values and Behaviors in Sixth Grade Language: Leadership

Five months ago, I concluded a short series on this blog in which I self-examined the core values of my association through the lens of six rules for living your organization's values, which were authored by a successful executive of a pharmaceutical company. In the concluding post to that series, I identified a handful of actions I planned to take; things I believed would help me and my organization better live the values we had defined.

One of those actions was a commitment to phrase our values--and the observable behaviors associated with each that would help us understand when we were living up to them--in simple, sixth grade language. Doing so, I said, would make them more memorable--for my team, yes, but more importantly for me, who had an obligation to reinforce their important role in our organization by calling out instances in which people were and were not acting in accordance with them.

Well, it's five months later, and I haven't yet made good on that commitment. I've meant to. Multiple times. It's been on my to-do list, and I've sent myself numerous reminders, but I haven't yet forced myself to sit down on do it.

Until today, that is.

Here's the way I figure it. As long as I'm already taking an hour or so each week to think about and write one of these blog posts, and as long as one of the purposes of this blog is to "work out loud," a reflective and community-engaging analysis tool that helps me do my job better, than what better idea could there be than to do the work here, leveraging the time I'm already dedicating to this task. So, here goes.

Our first core value is Leadership, which we define with the statement, "We lead the organization in creating new value for our members." It has eight observable behaviors associated with it, and here is a chart where I'm attempting to show a before-and-after comparison after applying the "sixth-grade" test to each one.

We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

We are concise and articulate in our speech and writing.
We are brief and to the point.
We minimize complexity, and look for efficiencies that can be shared across the organization.
We keep things simple.
We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments.
We find paths for others to follow.
We engage others in iterative processes that result in higher levels of value and engagement.
We engage others in our work.
We think strategically, make wise decisions despite ambiguity, and act with intention.
We think about the big picture.

We challenge prevailing assumptions, suggest better approaches, and create new ideas that prove useful.
We try new things and keep what works.

We exhibit a bias towards action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.
When uncertain, we act.

We take smart risks, learn from our mistakes, and share lessons with others.
We take risks and share our mistakes.

Okay, you caught me. I did some of this work in a previous blog post. But I have made some refinements since then. And I am going to tackle one of the other three values in each of the next three weeks.

Reviewing my work on Leadership, I think I need to boil things down even more. Eight behaviors are going to be hard to remember and keep track of, no matter how simply they are described. But the simple language does make it easier to identify common themes, and from those common themes, I think I can begin to see a very short list of actions that would be preferable in almost any situation we find ourselves in.

For Leadership, that short list of actions might be:

1. Actions that seek to engage others, simply and clearly, in the work of the association. Leaders do this effortlessly. They tear down barriers to engagement and shine a light on the path people need to travel to find value. Their communications are brief and to the point, and the steps they ask people to follow logically flow from one to the next. Drafting a Board meeting agenda, selecting speakers for a conference, providing resources through a website--whatever the task, the goal is the same. Make it easy for people to connect to the value we're providing.

2. Actions that demonstrate an awareness of our larger mission, and attempts to better connect our activities to it. Leaders take risks, but those risks are always tempered by honest attempts to fulfill a larger purpose. A risk that has no potential of contributing to the mission is not worth taking, and actions that only serve the needs of a certain segment may not provide the leverage an organization needs for sustainability. New courses of action are to be encouraged, especially when the way forward is unclear, but people must be able to explain how the new action serves our mission, or multiple stakeholders.

I could go on in each of those areas, but I think that's all I'm going to do this week. It may be better to tackle the remaining three values in the same fashion, and then come back and compare the different short lists for even more consolidation.

Stay tuned.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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