Why Teaching our Future Leaders our Values can inhibit their Growth.

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Have you ever come away from a situation where you completely over-reacted and then, when the dust had settled wondered why, as what happened didn’t seem such a big deal? By overreaction, I don’t only mean words and possibly fists flying. I also mean when something said or done affected you so deeply that you stewed about it for a lot longer than seemed warranted.

Most of us have had experiences of such an over-reaction and there is a good reason behind this. The reason usually lies within our deep set, internal values.

To introduce the concept of values I tell the story about attending a guest lecture in child psychology as an information-hungry young student in the late 1980’s. The guest lecturer was from the United States and she was talking about how important it is to give our children choices when we raise them. She advised that when feeding our children we should not just tell them to eat their meal, but we should ask them first what they would like to eat. In this case, she used the example of scrambled egg, boiled egg or poached egg. When shopping for shoes for children as young as three years old she suggested we line up four to five options of shoes to let them choose the ones they like most. “Always give your children choices” was the central theme of her lecture which rang a little differently to how I had been raised. Later that evening I was telling my flatmate about the lecture and about how, when we had our own children, that we should always give them choices. I shared the examples from the lecture I had attended. She thought about this for a few minutes and then she said, “My mother did exactly that. She said, eat or die – your choice!”

The point of my story is that the experts tell us that our values are in place by the time we are nine years old. What are the chances, realistically, that we chose them for ourselves, and why are they important? Values are most simply, the things we give a lot of value to in how we live our lives and the decisions that we make. For most of us, our values come from our immediate circle of influence during our formative years known as MFTP (Mother, Father, Teacher, Preacher). These values become deeply internalised and we only really become aware of them when we are placed in a position where we feel we need to compromise one of them, yet we don’t know why we feel so uncomfortable. This is also why discussions about religion and politics can often go from amicable to heated in a heartbeat. Our values operate like an internal “moral” compass that guides our behaviour, reactions and often our most important decisions.

I would never suggest that the values instilled in us at a young age, from those we love and respect are not honourable ones. What I am asking is – how are they relevant to our next generation of leaders, and how can we make sure that their values provide them with the strong moral foundation alongside the navigational skills we want to teach them? Instilling values from a generation which faced very different challenges to what we do now and instilling them into a generation who are to face ever more differences is not going to work.

As current leaders, we are the generation that can facilitate a change most efficiently. Becoming aware of this is a very good first step for our role in developing our next generation. I will always thank my parents for doing exactly this. They were raised by a generation that focused on fitting in yet they encouraged, or at least allowed my brother and I to stand out.

When we workshop with student leaders we run an activity with them that leads them to uncover their top driving values, in a personal sense and in a professional sense. It’s a confronting activity and feels uncomfortable for the participants as we tap into their subconscious minds and bypass their conscious reasoning, which will filter their results. But the period of discomfort is over quickly and the results, for their eyes only, can help them to understand why they might have reacted very strongly to an event in the past. This happened because one of their “buttons” was pushed. We call them trigger points.

Knowing what our trigger points are and having a fresh look at our driving values is very helpful to a strong sense of self and leadership ability – as well as the ability to grow.

Sandy Geyer

Author, Business Leader, Leadership Trainer, Entrepreneurial Success Trainer, Emotional Intelligence Trainer