Leadership Principles and Values Essential for Millennials

Leadership principles and values have been a subject for discussion since Aristotle. Every writer has their top ten leadership principles and values considered essential for effective leadership. However, the real question is not what they are, but do they mean anything? In the heat of competitive battle, do leadership principles and values get in the way, or do they act as a beacon of light in the middle of a storm? This is a question for every organization because millennials are demanding change.

Personal Observations of Leadership Behaviors

I have spent twenty-five years as a management consultant. For the last four years, I have spent four years researching how high-impact organizations approach the practice of leadership. From my experience, those organizations that live by their principles and values are way more successful in – long term. This is not a moral statement. It is an observation of those organizations that consistently deliver the greatest value to their customers. They also enjoy the highest levels of employee engagement.

How Leadership Principles Impact Employee Engagement

However, I have also seen the staff’s pride when core leadership principles and values drive decisions. I have seen the reaction when those principles and values guide difficult decisions. There is a sense of pride and a willingness to sacrifice when leaders use principles and values as guides.

Unfortunately, far more organizations use their core principles and values as marketing slogans than actual beacons of light. Sooner or later, competition demands take over, and core values and principles become background noise. Furthermore, it may take months to identify just the right leadership principles and values. However, it only takes one senior executive to counter those principles and values to make them meaningless. The rank and file see them for what they are, marketing slogans coming out of the communications department.

A True Story

Not long after I had joined a large national consulting firm, the founder and CEO retired. In response, the Board of Directors promoted his long-time Executive Vice President as the new CEO. One of his first steps was to update the employee policy manual. Of note was a new policy regarding romantic relationships between managers and their staff. Though the exact details are shrouded in secrecy, the rummers said that a lawyer walked into his office, confirmed the new policy, and reminded him of an embarrassing relationship with a member of his staff. Because the firm was a public company, the Board wanted to close the scandal as fast as possible, so they quickly terminated the CEO. Then they wrote a sizable check to his girlfriend. So much for core values and principles.

Making Leadership Principles and Values Meaningful

In my research into high-impact teams and how they approach leadership, I made a startling discovery – Behaviors. Each of the high impact teams and organizations I studied all had a list of core principles and values. However, what was surprising was the weight they put on personal behaviors. They put as much importance on their leaders’ behaviors as they did on organizational values and principles.

A Case Study in Values vs. Behaviors

For example, in 2012, North Mississippi Health Services (NMHS) received the nation’s highest award for excellence. The National Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award. John Heer was the CEO. John is the only person to have taken three different organizations to the Baldrige awards podium. In 2016 he was recognized by the Baldrige Foundation with the Harry Hertz Leadership Award. He is also one of the few people I know who intentionally designed a leadership system. It was a system based on the principles and values of servant leadership.

Servant Leadership as a Designed System of Leadership

The philosophy and practice of servant leadership put leaders in a support role to the front-line worker. It flips the traditional follow the leader model of leadership. The leader’s primary function is to support and develop her staff to carry out its mission. However, John did want servant leadership to be a good idea or a set of posters strategically place around each hospital and clinic. He did not want to leave servant leadership up to the goodwill of individual leaders. John wanted to hardwire the principles, values, and behaviors of servant leadership into each leader. With over 6500 employees, he had to design a system of leadership. The system required every leader to model the following eight core behaviors:

  • Respectfulness
  • Selflessness
  • Forgiveness
  • Honesty
  • Commitment
  • Results-oriented/”no excuses.”
  • Ego-directed toward team accomplishments

During my interview with John, I discovered that as CEO, he put as much weight, if not more weight, on those foundational behaviors as he did core values. He fully expected his leaders to lead by example..

Making Leadership Principles and Values Meaningful – Lead By Example

Leading by example is a common theme in books and speeches about leadership. I doubt anyone would debate the value of leading by example. However, practicing it is way more complicated. However, John set a high standard, not only for himself but also for each of his leaders. For example, teaching individual leaders to direct their ego toward the team’s accomplishments sounds simple enough. But it also meant that individual leaders also accepted responsibility for their team’s mistakes. However, the result was a “no excuse” culture—furthermore, the culture’s responsibility lay squarely on the shoulders of leadership.

Personal Performance Evaluation

During my interview, John explained to me the process of evaluating his leaders. Every leader, including himself, was reviewed by a team made up of subordinates, peers, and supervisors. Part of the evaluation was how they modeled these behaviors and values.
John also installed rules that would support a system of servant leadership. If scores dropped below a specific number, the leader would be evaluated twice a year rather than once a year and assigned a coach. If evaluations dropped even further, the hospital would likely remove them if they did not remove themselves.
When I asked John how his management team reacted when he started rolling out this new leadership system, he laughed and said, “half of them walked out. I found out later that the other half thought they could wait me out and that I would eventually walk out.”

Results of Servant Leadership a System

During John’s tenure, NMHS achieved the following:

  • Workforce engagement scores were in the 96th percentile nationally.
  • Patient satisfaction scores were in the 90th percentile nationally.
  • The turnover of nurses was 9 Percent when the national average was 25 percent.
  • For three straight years, NMHS was recognized by Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For.
  • Press Ganey recognized NMHS as the number one hospital in patient-satisfaction for five straight years.
  • They were named Performance Improvement Leaders Top 100 Hospitals for three straight years.

Six Ways High Impact Organizations Make Leadership Principles and Values Relevant

Every organization is different. Their leadership principles and values should be unique to them. However, individual leaders must model the behaviors to support those principles and values. The consistent display of these behaviors will build the culture and create a consistent employee experience.

Here are six ways high impact organizations are designing their culture:

  1. Include the modeling of leadership principles, values, and behaviors in performance evaluations

    Leading by example is a critical requirement of any system of leadership.

  2. Build ritual routines that support leadership principles, values and behaviors

    U.S. Army has built several routines and made the habits that support a culture of servant leadership. For example, when leaving on a mission, the highest ranking officer is the last to board the helicopter and the first to get off. In this way, the officer places himself in harms way first. This simple routine reinforces on of the Army’s core values, “put the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your subordinates above your own.”

  3. Recognize and acknowledge values and behaviors when they occur

    Daily huddles, rally’s, check-ins, or the genba are becoming more routine. What many teams do is to select one core value or supporting behavior for a week or month. Then the team can recognize one another when they see it displayed in the workplace. This reinforced the value or behavior. In addition, it gives positive encouragement to the workforce.

  4. Empower staff to speak up when values are being ignored

    For example, in a hospital recognized as one of the safest in the nation, a nurse was preparing a patient for chemo therapy. However, when she voiced her concern that two blood tests had not been completed the attending physician over ruled her concern. When she went to the Director of Oncology he agreed and called the attending physician. The physician then verbally abused the nurse for contradicting his orders. Upon hearing of the abuse, the Director pulled the physician from his duties for the abuse because it was inconsistent with the most core value – respect.

  5. Hire leaders who will support core leadership principles and values

    For example, if a hospital is installing a system of servant they should only hire leaders and managers who will support and be willing to model the principles, values, and behaviors of a servant leader.

  6. Recognize that the culture is one of the primary functions of leadership

    The best cultures are those that have been designed. Leadership has enormous opportunity to strengthen and expand culture by their modeling of core principles, values, and behaviors.

How Important are Core Values and Principles to Millennials?

Millennials are flooding the job market and are currently the largest segment of the workforce. Generation z’s are right behind them. These generations have some notable attributes:

1) Lazy.
2) Disloyal.
3) Selfish.
4) Entitled.

However, it might be worth noting that those who make these observations are of their baby boomer parents and grandparents. We should also understand that all those baby boomer parents need to look in the mirror if anyone is to blame. However, millennials also have some other attributes that their leaders should be aware of.

Five Attributes of Millennials

  1. Work-life balance is essential to them. Unlike their parents and grandparents, millennials are not interested in sacrificing their own lives and their own families on the corporate altar of high achievement.
  2. Millennials are highly purpose and mission-driven. Consequently, they expect their organizations to share these same values.
  3. Millennials understand the mission and purpose to be more than a generous cash contribution to a few hand-selected nonprofits. Millennials expect their organizations to get involved, contribute, and support ideal greater than pure profit.
  4. They expect their leaders to model core principles and values. Millennials are the most highly educated generation since the dawn of humanity. They are smart, confident, and fully expect to have a voice at the table. They are not interested in being anyone’s follower. Therefore, if their manager or company does not treat them with respect, dignity, and value, they will walk.
  5. Corporate culture is essential to them. Millennials are the first generation to give up salary for culture. Leaders must recognize this and design systems of leadership to build cultures that are consistent across their organizations.

Conclusion – How Millennials are Demanding Behaviors Consistent with Leadership Principles and Values

There are six ways high impact organizations make leadership principles and value meaningful for their workforce, but especially for their millennial workers. These are important for high impact organizations who want to remain agile and provide exceptional customer value. As millennials and Gen Z workers, they will be demanding more and more accountability from leadership for the consistent modeling of behaviors that support core principles and values. Frankly, I welcome their impact on the workplace.


About the Author

Daniel Edds, MBA is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. This is the first book of its kind that describes in simple and easy to understand case studies and stories how high impact organizations are recreating the world of work and leadership.


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