From Values to Action -- Review

FROM VALUES TO ACTION: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership.   By Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr.   San Francisco:  Jossey Bass, 2011.  210 pages.

                At a time when the business community, I.e. Wall Street, is under fire for what appears to most of us as indulging itself in corporate greed, the idea of values-based leadership might seem oddly out of sync with reality.  That we might learn something of value from a business leader may therefore seem to stretch our imaginations beyond the breaking point.  That Christian leaders might find something of value may also be a stretch.  Of course, we who live outside the business world have long sought to discern threads of guidance from business and political leaders that might enhance our own work in the church and in life.  Thus, we have turned to Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Steven Covey, and others for advice.  One might want to add to that list Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. 

            Harry Kraemer is the former CEO of Baxter, International, a major health care company and currently a partner in Dearborn Partners, a private equity group.  He also serves as a professor of Management in the MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  The book is written with this practical experience in the business world in mind.  He climbed the ladder at Baxter and served both as CFO and CEO.  He also writes as one who is formed by his Catholic faith, thus there is a spiritual component present.  It’s not always overt, but the ethical/moral dimension influences his understanding of values-based leadership.

            What is values-based leadership?  Well, it’s based on the principle of “doing the right thing.”  Kraemer writes of values-based leadership:
Leadership, simply put, is the ability to influence others.  Values-based leadership takes it to the next level.  By word, action, and example, values-based leaders seek to inspire and motivate, using their influence to pursue what matters most (p.2).       
Now, there may be differences of opinion as to what matters most, but for those, like me, who come to this book from a perspective that emphasizes God’s concern for the common good, what matters most is that we learn to love God with our entire being and our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Values-based leadership, then, will get us to that goal.

            Kraemer divides his book into three parts.  The first part outlines his four principles – self-reflection, balance and perspective, true self-confidence, and genuine humility.  If one just reads this section of the book, they will find much food for thought and foundation for action.  Part two takes those values into developing a values-based organization.  Here he deals with talent management, leadership development, setting directions, communicating effectively, motivating one’s team and executing one’s plan.  This is the practical section.  Finally, in part three, he discusses how to lead one’s organization from success to significance.  That is, it’s not enough to be successful, especially financially, if one does not end up becoming a socially responsible entity that makes a positive contribution to humanity. 

            The middle section of the book at times will require discernment as to how it will be of use.  There is much of value here in regards to putting together a team and guiding it to an effective outcome.  That said, those of us who work in small churches don’t have the luxury of hiring and firing a staff.  We can’t always choose who we will work with, for most of those we work with are volunteers.  So, the dynamics will be different. Still, there is much of value to be found laid out on these pages.

            Where I found the most value in this book on values-based leadership is part 1.  These four principles – self-reflection, balance/perspective, true self-confidence, and genuine humility.  Kraemer states that self-reflection is the foundational principle of leadership.  By developing a sense of self-awareness, where we know both our own strengths and our weaknesses, we will be better prepared to take on a leadership role.  Self-reflection is a tool that will allow us to set priorities and make good choices.  When we’re not acting from self-reflection we tend to make bad choices, jumping in without knowing whether this is a good decision.  He notes, however, that this principle will require us to move outside our comfort zone, but the result will be very valuable.
Following up on this act of self-reflection is the principle of “balance and perspective.”  Balance, he writes, “is the ability to see issues, problems, and questions from all angles, including from different viewpoints, even those that are diametrically opposed to mine” (p. 28).  Having balance invites one to do the right thing rather than being right, and one needn’t know everything.  Something that Kraemer says that might cause difficulty for some, but which I think might be of value, is that leadership involves inviting input into the decision making process, but consensus isn’t necessary.  Balance, however, not only includes looking at issues from multiple angles, it also involves living a balanced life.  If, he says, we identify too much with our work then we’ll likely burnout.  The goal is a satisfying life.  Even though one works hard at one’s job, there needs to be room to “live life” as well.  A values-based leader, therefore, isn’t a workaholic.
The third principle is “true self-confidence,” which involves having an inner sense of one’s own self.  Again it involves recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and building upon one’s strengths.  True self confidence means being comfortable with one’s self.  He writes that “although there will always be people who are smarter or more talented, you know you are okay and committed to getting better.  You recognize that your future lies in your existing strengths, not in your weaknesses.  You surround yourself with people whose skill sets complement yours” (p. 58).  It stands in contrast with false self-confidence, which is expressed in terms of bravado, arrogance, and the belief that one is always right.  When one has this true self-confidence, then one will have the courage to speak one’s mind and the ability to persevere.    

Finally, he offers up the principle of “genuine humility.”  This emerges from self-reflection and true self-confidence.  It emerges from being grounded, and helps one focus on doing what is best and what is right, not in climbing the corporate ladder.  Having genuine humility involves three goals:  1) a commitment to grow and learn; 2) a commitment to adding value to the team; 3) and interestingly enough – having fun at what you do.  Raw ambition may get one to the top, but if one takes that route, they will discover that it’s a rather lonely place to be.  Ambition will not create allies or a sense of team.  Thus, you need to be yourself, stay true to your values, and maintain relationships.  Genuine humility involves recognizing that that everyone adds value to the organization or the team.
Based on these principles, Kraemer offers his view of how leadership is expressed in an organization and business.  To be successful, one must lead from one’s values, and ones values are discerned through self-reflection.  How one relates to others and how one acts in a leadership role, including how one relates to one’s team, should be consistent with these values.
In Part III, where he speaks about from success to significance, he speaks to two questions – how do you have courage to lead in times of change, controversy and crisis, and developing socially responsible leadership.  One would hope that religious groups would seek to be socially responsible, though that’s not always a given.  For corporations, of course, placing an emphasis on social responsibility would be welcome!  The focus of chapter eleven, the penultimate chapter, deals with an issue of great importance for the church and other religious entities.  We live in time of change, and many find it difficult to navigate these changes.  We also face a number of controversial issues, including how we deal with homosexuality, and for many this is a time of crisis.  Starting with those four principles, upon which values-based leadership builds, we can face our realities.
When it comes to dealing with change, he states the obvious – the majority doesn’t like it – but as the Borg (Star Trek) remind us, our resistance is futile.  The question isn’t whether change is occurring but how we deal with it.   Kraemer speaks of four ways in which we deal with change, ranging from reactive to proactive.  To be reactive response is to resist change, pure and simple, hoping that things will remain the same tomorrow as they were yesterday.  When it comes to leadership, it is minimally expressed.  The next way of responding is tolerance.  You don’t like it, but you will tolerate it if necessary.  This takes a bit more leadership response, but the impact is minimal.  You will try to avoid it, and adapt where necessary.  Further along, one may accept change, even if grudgingly.  This takes a lot more leadership involvement, because the leader will discern that change has positive elements and that by embracing change the organization will be better off.  The final phase of leadership in times of change is the proactive leader.  Such a person not only finds ways of adapting, but seeks to initiate change.  They don’t just ride the waves, the create them.  This requires the greatest amount of leadership, and much courage (remember people don’t like change).
Change, controversy, and crisis will occur.  It’s inevitable.  They might be minor or major.  Courage is essential, not because it minimizes the challenges, but because it “emboldens you to face the fear and do what is necessary” (p. 180).   Courage will also keep us from taking shortcuts that undermine the response.  He writes that “doing the right thing may not always be easy, but when you look at the bigger context, you see that it is the only true choice (p. 181).

I’m not an expert in business and management, but I am entrusted with the call to leadership.  I believe that Kraemer’s book, though written for the business community, has much to say to all of us who are called to leadership.  It does take courage and moral fortitude to lead in times like these, and this book offers important guidance on how to take an organization beyond simple success; however that is defined, to social significance.  Our goal should be, I would think, to have a lasting impact on our environment, one that extends beyond the organization.  That is the goal espoused in this book!  For that reason, this is a book that is worth reading. 


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