Compete and Keep Your Soul

values based leadership
This is a guest post by Jeff Thompson, MD. Jeff is the author ofLead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community and he is CEO Emeritus and Executive Advisor at Gundersen Health System.


Compete and Keep Your Soul

The bookstores have volumes and the media is full of examples of people who believe the way to success is to crush the competition—out-strategizing people and pressing your advantage till they are crushed by the wayside. Young leaders are told to step on faces to get ahead or aim for short term goals of size and profit.

But there is another way. There is a clear path to have stunning success and still be able to sleep at night and be proud to tell your grandchildren how the world is a better place because you were in it.

Values-based, not ego-based, leadership focuses on serving the greater good and accomplishing a higher purpose.  It is not complicated. It is just difficult.



Let’s take for example the last broad economic downturn.

How are the priorities in your department or company organized to deal with this problem? Who were the first to be affected? The most vulnerable? The last people who were brought in the organization (your future)? The people with the least power and the least influence? Who took the biggest beating? What won the day? The long-term good of the organization or the short-term financial performance report for the board? Shareholders may clamor for short-term wins, but there is no law that says you have to sacrifice the long-term health of the organization or its people to satisfying this immediate clamor. Decision making guided by values takes courage, discipline and durability.


To extend our above example, it takes courage to declare that you were not going to take the easy way and have a mass layoff and that you are going to look for the long term greater good rather than short-term wins just to make the next finance report less painful. It takes courage to stare into the faces of the senior leadership and tell them that we as a group must be seen as working as hard and be just as vulnerable as the rest of the staff.

The more special and protected the senior executives, the less special and more afraid the rest of the staff will be.

Without this type of courage, the rest of your plans will go nowhere. Aristotle called it the “first virtue” because without it the rest will not have an opportunity to be presented.



It is great to take a strong values-based stand. What’s equally important is to have the discipline to follow through. The discipline to have the organization set up clear values and a pattern of living them before the crisis so you do not sacrifice either the mission or the people. Delivering on the mission in times of stress doesn’t mean you let it crush the organization; it means you have a disciplined, thoughtful but values-based approach to solving it in the short, medium and long term.

Finally, durability. If you take tough stands and try to follow through, you’ll wither without durability. There will always be pushback from the board that you’re not acting quick enough or push back from shareholders thinking they deserve short-term returns rather than your long-term plan. There will be pushback from senior staff who say they’ve earned the right to be special. There is no lack of obstacles if you choose a broad values-based long-term plan.

Courage, discipline, and durability are all needed, and are all needed to work in concert to succeed and live your values


3 Keys to Improving Innovation

Another common example that requires a strong values-based approach is innovation. All of us are pressed to innovate as the world changes rapidly. Several keys to improving innovation are the following:

–First: get close enough to the work so you understand the moral imperative and your people’s connection to it

— Second: structure will improve innovation

–Third:  you need to have a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom

It takes courage to get out and get close to the work and discipline to organize yourself in a consistent way where you go to the front lines to connect with real people. They are the people that are actually accomplishing the grand strategic plan boldly laid out with boardroom platitudes. Beyond talk, this is where you can see and feel and connect in a way that will give you not only true inside information but the strength to carry-on through the obstacles mentioned above.



Next, structure will improve innovation. Sounds counterintuitive but all great inventions were not made in garages in California. Most innovations are done by teams who were close enough to the work to understand what is not working and what can be done. Structure that will help them becomes clarity on what is the purpose of your organization, where you’re going, what are your goals and especially what are the values to tell them how their organization will behave and how they’re going to be treated. Given that clarity, staff can feel free to innovate at a much greater pace. Take this “how we will work” plan and match it with aspirational goals of where they need to get to by when, and you can see the pace of change increase. Will this happen if your goal is improving the operating margin 1% for next year? Not likely. But if they clearly understand how savings will be used, how the future of the community will be brighter, how their lives will be enriched and more secure, then the goals can be both aspirational an inspirational.

And, finally, having a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom. This doesn’t mean wantonly going off in aberrant directions. This means thoughtfully considering if what is generally understood is really wisdom or outdated and no longer true. For example, we at the Gundersen Health System felt it was inappropriate that our energy use was causing pollution that went into the atmosphere that would hurt children with asthma and adults with chronic lung disease. We ignored the conventional wisdom that said it’s either your bottom line or the environment, or it’s jobs or the environment. We found a way to lower our pollution by 95%, decrease our operating costs, and improve the regional economy all at the same time. This took courage to take that stand, a very disciplined approach to follow through, and great perseverance to put up with the criticism. We won hearts and minds, and we had hard data to show that we could do what conventional wisdom had advised against.

This approach of courage, discipline and durability allowed us to live our values, serve our staff, the organization, and the community and be competitive for the long term.

In times of crisis and in times of planned growth, you can choose to live your values, accomplish your aspirational strategic goals, and serve the greater good of your community all at the same time.



Lead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community

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