When Core Values Drive the System of Leadership

I spoke with Gerald Midgley, Professor of Systems Thinking at the Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull, UK. He had given me the honor of reviewing my book, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership. One of his first questions was this, “how does your model of a leadership system account for organizational values?” It was a great question because I had seen the link, but I did not know what to do about it. Dr. Midgley’s question forced me to incorporate organizational values into leadership systems deployed by the highest performing organizations. The link was the personal behaviors of individual leaders.


As an avid LinkedIn user, I am struck by the frequency of comments that go something like this, “organizations identify their core values, proudly display them on posters, then promptly forget them.” However, what I had seen in my research is that organizations that consistently perform at the highest levels emphasize, if not more, on behaviors as they do values. Because without core behaviors, core values are meaningless. There is an excellent story about Virginia Mason Medical Center, located in Seattle, Washington.

One day, a nurse was prepping a cancer patient for chemotherapy. She noticed two required tests had not yet been completed and told her directing physician, who told her to proceed anyway. She had to choose
between orders and doing what she thought was right for the patient. Respect (core value) dictated that the patient was her highest priority, so she called the chief of cancer services, who, in turn, called the physician to tell him the two tests must be done before delivering the chemotherapy. Furious, the physician let loose on the nurse, verbally abusing her. She again called the chief of cancer services, who pulled a Patient Safety Alert (PSA), the equivalent of a Toyota worker pulling the stop cord, bringing production to a halt, so an error does not get passed on. The chief of cancer services called the physician again, this time telling him his conduct was unprofessional, abusive, and in violation of Virginia Mason’s value of respect (core value).
During my tour, I did not see posters advertising core values. What I did so was a poster titled Foundational Behaviors. It is a poster regularly reviewed by the executive leadership team. It reminds them that their behaviors are foundational to the execution of their core value that drives their healthcare delivery – respect.
Just how good is Virginia Mason?
• Recipient of Healthgrades Distinguished Hospital Award for Clinical Excellence, eight consecutive years, placing Virginia Mason in the top 5 percent of the nearly 4,500 US hospitals.
• Recipient of Healthgrades highest award for patient experience for eight consecutive years.
• Recipient of seventeen consecutive “A” in the Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade Program, for success in preventing medical mistakes and other potential harm.

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