Maintaining Focus on Values in Tough Times

Jim Kouzes

Q: It's fine to live out our values in good times, when business is up. But how do you maintain the focus on values in tough times, when financial results become the most important thing?

A: If you look at the business scandals that make the headlines, you'll find case after case of profits trumping ethical behavior. Look a bit deeper, however, and you'll find the financial consequences of these actions turned out to be disastrous—for investors and employees. A focus on profits at the expense of doing the right thing is a sure way to economic decline.

Of course, there are times when leaders have to make tough decisions about layoffs. But it's important to remember that only the most credible leaders can make these kinds of tough decisions and sustain credibility. You have to build your credibility over time so that when you do have to make the tough decision, you can say, "You'll have to trust me on this one." You have to accumulate and invest capital before you can withdraw. That's what's called "having a good credit rating."

In fact, it is precisely in tough times when we most need to focus consciously on values, because it is so easy to cut corners to make the numbers. For a manager, making the numbers might be enough, but financial success is not enough for a leader. A leader must also ensure the organization will survive over the longer term, even after a downturn. A company's reputation is tested in tough times. The winners never compromise their values. Instead, they discover innovative ways to prosper.

Jim Kouzes, cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., is the Dean's Executive Professor of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge and over a twenty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

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