Are you Superman or a target monkey?

I’ve got a Superman tattoo and I sometimes get asked why – mainly by my exasperated and disappointed mother but not exclusively. Perhaps I believe I share some of his abilities or maybe I’m just a fan of men with underpants on the outside.

Actually, it’s simply a reminder. Some people have Post-It notes on their computer screen, I have a tattoo – to remind me to always remember the importance of what you stand for. Lois Lane, in one of her first interviews with Superman asked him just that – “Superman, what do you stand for?”

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Too many leaders and businesses still don’t know what they stand for  – or at least aren’t able or prepared to articulate – and I wonder if it’s because they just don’t think it matters. After all, they are typically bright, driven, goal oriented individuals, determined to do what’s required in order to win.

If they thought that knowing what they and their businesses stood for would make a difference to winning, then they’d obsess over it, but most don’t. Instead they choose to obsess over sales, revenue and profit targets; over cost control and reduction programmes; over processes and efficiency; over tools and measures.

All of these things matter – they’re all important ingredients in winning – but leaders (and their businesses) don’t just win on what they know or through their continual ability to hit a target like some well trained circus monkey.

There’s little competitive advantage here – everyone can have great tools and processes and with enough determination and skilful goal setting, most people and businesses can hit a target. But none of this answers the question – “Who are you and what do you stand for?”

Does it matter? We think so.

Contrast two leaders we’ve recently worked with – one was a new appointment as the Chief Exec in the luxury goods sector for a brand that had been under-performing for a few years. For any new leader, particularly when surrounded by strong personalities with a long track record in the business, it’s very tempting to take a “wait and see attitude” while confidence in the new role is built. This leader, however, knew what she stood for and what behaviours and attitudes she would expect and those she wouldn’t tolerate. She also stood for being brave (knowing that to be brave she had to feel a little sacred first) and within the first few weeks of taking up her role, had removed two senior leaders who were exhibiting behaviours she didn’t want to see and that were going to get in the way of the business becoming a success.

It was hard because these leaders had good relationships with Head Office and had delivered individually decent results – though in the eyes of the new Chief Exec, the way they went about it left a lot to be desired. Their departure from the business was accompanied almost immediately with an injection of energy into the organisation and most particularly the leadership team – there was almost a sense of infection – knowing and acting upon her values provided an invitation for other leaders to do the same. A couple of years on and the business is transformed. Of course it’s impossible to establish a direct causation between her values based leadership and that performance. Though if you were to ask other people in the business, they’d tell you that it had a massive effect.

Contrast that with another recently appointed MD, also in a business that was underperforming. This leader took a different approach – though there were some things that were important to him and values he felt were important, he didn’t have the confidence to deliver his performance through those values in the early days. His focus was on fitting in and making sure he didn’t upset the corporation – he delayed doing things he instinctively felt were right because we was concerned about how it would be perceived.

The business continued to under-perform and he came under increasing pressure to make a difference. The worsening results and the pressure reduced his confidence even further so he felt even less able to stand up for what he believed in because he was certain it wouldn’t be supported – and by the time he did, it was too late.

Let’s be clear

Our first leader had the same concerns about how her actions would be received – but her values were deeply important to her and she knew that failing to live them would mean that she would not do a good job. Simply, if she was going to get fired, she was going to get fired for being herself, not for doing an inadequate impression of the person she thought she was supposed to be.

And it’s not just about leaders. This matters for all of us – if your values really matter to you, can you perform consistently well if the organisation you work for tramples all over them on a regular basis. Sure we all have to conform enough and we probably just have to accept that occasionally, our values will be challenged by company decisions. Sometimes our values help us through and provide a kind of moral compass – other times we might just have to accept that what we’re being asked to do or to support is against our better judgement or instincts. But if this happens with frequency or intensity – or both – then we probably have a decision to make. Lose who we are and stay or stay true to yourself. At the very least in these situations, your values will tell you which hills are worth dying on.

Values are key for teams too

Great teams we’ve worked with in the world of elite sport know who they are, what they stand for and what values and behaviours will help them win – and some of the best teams we’ve worked with in the corporate arena do too.

Teams are made up of different people with different values. For the team to be effective, it needs to be able to align behind decisions. It’s very unlikely that everyone on the team will agree with every choice – though if the team knows what it stands for, thinking of itself as having its own personality, then the team is not paralysed – instead it can drive to decisions in the knowledge that it is doing so with confidence because it knows what it stands for.

Without it, they’re just doing stuff – with it, they’re doing stuff, their particular way, amplifying the great things that unite them, guiding their choices, demonstrating what makes them different and ultimately, being human and being connected to something greater than the ability to hit a number.

Knowing who you are, what you stand for and what you and your team are connected to speaks to one of the strongest drivers of human motivation – the desire to connect to something greater than an outcome. Without it, you have no soul and increasingly, customers and people who work in your business want to know and be proud of working with and for organisations with a soul.

If you don’t know what you stand for or if you once did some work on it but it was just a tick box exercise now gathering dust somewhere, then you’re definitely not Superman – and you may be a Target Monkey.

With the sort of pressure so many leaders are under and with a corporate culture obsessed with hitting numbers, perhaps that’s not surprising. And since, as a leader, your attitude is disproportionately infectious, it’s pretty likely you’re breeding lots of other soulless target monkeys too. Even worse, your talent you’ve worked so hard to recruit and retain will leave and you’ll end up with an organisation that is efficient, clinical, driven and ultimately indistinguishable and anodyne.

Superman’s answer was “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. What’s yours?