Redefining What Success Looks Like:
Aligning your personal core values with leadership core values is the path to success

by Lisa King

It can be difficult for young, impressionable leaders to distinguish the characteristics of leadership that lead to success. Typically, we look at leaders in our organizations, those who have risen to the ranks of executive leadership, and figure they must have what it takes; after all, they hold the title we want someday – they are what success looks like.

It can be confusing, and some believe that in order to succeed in a culture, they must abandon their personal core values and “become” like those high-ranking leaders.

As the newest member of a small executive leadership team in a growing organization, I was surrounded by fellow leaders whose tenure far surpassed my own. For some, the company was all they knew, never having worked anywhere else. The culture was well-established and highly competitive, and leadership was very dominating. But, the company was experiencing much success. In fact, we were aggressively hiring new employees in all functional areas of the business, including mine.

One of the new employees I hired was an energetic, appropriately assertive, and highly intelligent young man – let’s call him Tom. He was eager to learn, prove himself, and grow quickly in the organization. For the first year, Tom worked closely with me, always sought feedback on how to improve, and genuinely wanted to do his best. People liked Tom; he was friendly, supportive, regularly added significant value to the work, and was easy to work with.

Tom was a rising star, quickly gaining the confidence of customers and growing his business.

The executive leadership team wanted to expand his responsibilities. I agreed wholeheartedly and we expanded Tom’s scope of work, which allowed him to work directly with the CEO and other leaders on the executive team. This gave Tom a boost of adrenaline! Eager once again to prove himself, with his sights set on a promotion, Tom began to closely watch the behaviors of some of the executives and the CEO to better understand what success looks like.

Tom observed the executive’s actions in meetings, how they provided direction to other employees, and their communication style. Tom began to model their behaviors and their leadership core values.

As a result, Tom became dominating in meetings, barked directions to fellow employees when collaborating on projects, and shot out abrupt emails in which he often forgot to say “thank you.” Tom’s stress level rose significantly, and it was apparent to me that his personal core values were conflicting with the leadership core values he was emulating. In addition, I received complaints from the CEO and a few of the executives working closely with Tom. They felt his behavior had become abrasive and was negatively affecting the staff. They had a complete blind spot to the fact that Tom had been modeling their behaviors, believing that he would impress them and he would be more likely to get a promotion. After all, they represented what success looks like, right?

Unfortunately, Tom’s conflict is common in many organizations. When his modeled behaviors and professional goals were in contrast with his personal core values, he became physically exhausted and mentally stressed. He could not see a way to achieve what he needed professionally while remaining “himself” in the organization.

I encouraged Tom to clarify what mattered to him and to realign his behaviors, goals, and personal core values to be consistent. In time, people began to see Tom again for who he really was, and with a renewed focus, he got that well-deserved promotion.

Although I am no longer with that company, when I see Tom, he is happier and continues to remain true to himself. He still has some difficult days, but he regularly reminds himself what really matters as a leader and what success looks like, based on his own leadership core values. He is focused on investing in himself and his future in ways that will surely drive much success, likely in another organization where the culture is a better fit.

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