What My High School Senior Taught Me about Value-Based Leadership

I would like to believe my values are visible to those I love, lead and interact with – but are they? How would I know? It’s not as if I list my values on a sheet of paper or interview people to see if they recognize them.

Values are intrinsic; you call on them without thinking about or recognizing them. You develop values through life experiences – it starts early, but it’s a continuous journey that doesn’t end. They are shaped by what you read, who you surround yourself with and the experiences you have.

But it’s hard to actually see values, especially your own. It’s easier to see values being deployed by others.

Values take shape early

My son, Michael, is about to head off to college, and my wife and I find ourselves wondering if 170016-PB-Blog_02_22_17we taught him everything he needs to know. The short answer: Of course not. But as parents, we worry; it’s what we do. We worry about whether our son will continue to make good choices when we’re not around. We hope so, but truthfully that’s all we can do – it’s up to him.

Mike loves life. He’s all in. He works hard and plays hard. In his first 17 years, he has had a lot of experiences that have begun to shape his values. He has his share of wins and losses. He is a good kid, but every now and then, he engages in some bad behavior or makes questionable decisions. Whether we like it or not, he is human and just like the rest of us, he’s not perfect. And he doesn’t have to be – but is he learning from these experiences?

He does not take no easily. He has strong beliefs. My wife would say he is thick-headed, like me. But I would say he’s better than me – he is smarter, more passionate and more caring. He takes risks – risks I would have never dreamed of taking, especially at 17. He handles losing with the same grace he does winning. He is humble. He leads through action, not voice. But I still worry; have we done a good job teaching him right from wrong? I am not sure his values have been truly tested, that is, until recently.

The student becomes the teacher

Recently, some interesting things developed at school, creating a difficult situation. It related to social media, bullying and growing up in a 24×7 completely transparent world. There was growing support and momentum around a certain plan of action.

When he explained it to me, I jumped to a conclusion almost impulsively; he did not. He stepped back and looked at what was going on. He thought about the real issues, not the popular one. He suggested a plan of action that I would not have come up with in a million years. It was respectful and more importantly, it was value based. He believes in fairness, privacy and accountability. His decision had all of those things. He was thoughtful and deliberate. He shared his thoughts in a controlled way. He looked at both sides. He did not hesitate to share his thinking and support his rationale.

I’ve built a life and career around teaching and leading others, but in that moment, my 17-year-old son made me the student and taught me a brand new lesson. Values are not about right or wrong. They are about what you believe is right and having the courage to say it and act on it, especially when the momentum is going in a different direction. That is authentic, value-based leadership. We should all ask ourselves: Do we have the courage to lead like this?

As for Mike and his fast-approaching transition to college life, I think he is ready. I guess the real question is: Am I?