Revelations about Volkswagen and their “defeaters” fitted to supposedly cleaner diesel vehicles have sent shock waves through an industry in which the VW brand was thought to be synonymous with quality, reliability and ecologically sound production. Rumours abound of some “senior” leaders being sacked, of criminal proceedings, whilst car dealers and customers are left reeling in the vacuum of truth about what has happened and what the future holds. For those of us who have been leaders and work with those in leadership positions, there are some uncomfortable implications about what happens when ethics and integrity are ditched in order to escape accountability and deal with commercial pressures. The long term financial cost may turn out to be insignificant compared to the potential impact of those losses in jobs, income, reputation and integrity in the marketplace.

In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Said Warren Buffet. This is especially true of people who seek leadership positions. Leaders who have well developed values which guide their behaviour at work, who see what really matters and are resolute in acting ethically, are more likely not only to stand strong under pressure but will also be an inspiration to others to do the right thing as well. Robert Quin and Anjan Thakor in an article called “How to imbue the organisation with a higher purpose” (in Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer, “How to be a Positive Leader”) state that their research shows that many senior leaders are not able to articulate their guiding values and more than this see the notion of a higher purpose as irrelevant. They say of such leaders that “Creating meaning may seem like a waste of time. Pressure may lead to the search for easy tasks with high pay-offs, not the gruelling task of understanding the deep needs of stakeholders and articulating a vision. There is a natural pull of executives, even CEOs, to be managers rather than leaders”. Authentic leadership by people who have clear values, who demonstrate consistent qualities such as trust, commitment to excellence and understanding, encourage loyalty and trust from those they lead.

In working with leaders, I use an number of images to illustrate what is needed in seeking to be fulfilled, resilient and effective each day, but especially when the heat is on and push comes to shove.

One of the best I have found is the Tree of Life which has been developed by Robert Biswas – Diener#PositiveAcorn. In this holistic model, the roots of our tree represent our values and without well – embedded ideas and beliefs, we have no strong foundation to sustain us when life throws us challenges that can rough us up and test our ability to hold onto what really matters. Research evidence shows that when we are required to act against our values we can experience very significant stress and this can impact us negatively not just in terms of our mental health, but also in our physical being and deeper spiritual sense of wellbeing. So, a good question for any leader or indeed anyone that seeks a leadership role, is “What are the values that define my life? How are these reflected in my leadership? What will people see about what I do and say that communicates my core values?”

Values support the development of the trunk of the tree which are our unique signature strengths which are hard – wired qualities which we bring to bear in every aspect of our lives, including work, and which when utilised gives us energy and a sense of accomplishment.

If there are plentiful resources to feed the tree then the tree will produce abundant leaves and fruit in the various domains of our lives (the branches). The model suggest that to sustain us in times of hardship, we need to make sure that as leaders we learn to look after ourselves in every sense and build networks of personal and professional support that enable us to refresh us and inspire us to continue to lead in harmony with our values.