The National Archives, US. UN Propaganda 1945.
Remember the last time you made a choice that trampled all over your values?
Perhaps you felt like a hypocrite, though likely not for long. Humans are hardwired to dissolve the cognitive dissonance between their aspirations and choices by justifying them so that those choices become acceptable exceptions. So after that quick mental hygiene process you forgot about it. That’s how it happens. To all of us.
But perhaps your instinctive response to my question was a self-protecting “I cannot remember the last time I would have done that.”
I get it. And: just look at your economically, and perhaps impulse driven, choices as a consumer and your wish to do right by people and planet. Those are the small dissonances we all experience from day to day And they matter. But let me share a recent example of being a hypocrite myself. A whooping example. One that created great insight and learning for me. A few weeks ago, when the oil price was still above $0 per barrel, but was heading down and down and down, I suddenly did something crazy:
I almost bought oil stocks!
If you’ve ever been on my personal website for more than 3 seconds, you’ll get just how unbelievable that is.
It may dissapoint you.
And I get that. You might ask yourself how that could happen, if you haven’t already clicked away from this post. So let me share what I learnt, and why it is important for leaders to look at their attitudes and behaviours with curiosity when they simply don’t match their values and beliefs. My realisation was simple:
I came from a place of fear.
That took me a while to realise, for I am not often connected to my fear. I know it’s there. After all, I am a certified coach, I am a reader, and I have worked on my inner leadership in many courses. So not only do I know that I have mortal fears, I also know that everyone does, and that we are more often driven by fear than we allow ourselves to be conscious of. It’s easy to explain our choices rationally, when really they are driven by fear. What’s more, other emotions, such as anger, and physical responses like pain or fatigue cover our fear, so that we don’t have to directly feel it. Finally, we avoid conversations and situations in order to stay in our comfort zone and get anywhere close to fear. In case you want to dip into this topic a little more, go get yourself a copy of The Four Agreements. A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom! It’s an eye opener.
Granted: Fear sucks. And we try to avoid it. But why was I afraid in the first place?
I had looked my financial retirement provisions in the eye.
And the numbers cruelly stared right back at me.
Here’s the story: I recently started an online course on Investing for retirement. I had actually waited for a whole year to actively reinvest my dissolved Swiss pension fund so as to get rid of the greedy fund managers. Just before the market tanked, I had signed up for this course on sustainable investment. And then I noticed that I was utterly underprepared.
I had waited for stocks to go down, and when they did, I scrambled to do my research as part of my coursework.
After 2 weeks of procrastinating research, the stock market had already recovered by 50%. Now it was definitely time to decide into which ETFs to invest. And I was disappointed about having missed the boat that I had waited for in the past year. But I could not make a decision.
I was stuck in analysis paralysis!
Which ETFs were both sustainable AND promised the highest yield so I could invest smartly for my retirement? In this moment of confusion, a friend of mine said:
“Best time ever to invest in oil.”
It was so clear and so simple. While oil was down now, it would always gain back value. You could not go wrong with oil! That made sense. As soon as the economy would recover, oil prices would rise like the phoenix from the ashes.
In an instant I made up my mind: I would invest a portion of my money in oil, create a quick win, and then reinvest sustainably with twice the money I had now. Boom! Ironically, Aysha’s course focuses on investing into SUSTAINABLE ETFs. When I asked a question about oil, unsurprisingly she asked back:
“Is that who you want to be?”
Here’s where the whole cognitive dissoance came into play nicely. Because, although I knew that this was against my values, I was not ready to let go of the thought, and tapped into my value of risk taking, experimenting – though funnily, I never actually looked at oil ETFs, because the research on sustainable ETFs was what had confused me in the first place.
In the end, I invested all my money in sustainable ETFs. What happened?
Serendipity saved me.
Serendipity led me to deeply connect to my core values. Totally unrelated to the whole investing for retirement business, my leadership tribe scheduled a book call. So on an early Sunday morning, with everyone else in the house still asleep, I read Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead which is a work-along kind of book. I did a values exercise which was different to the value mining I have coached my clients through for many years. This exercise made me drill down my list of 10 “must have in my life to thrive” values to 2. (I just could not get down to 1!) Try it, it is as powerful as it is painful. In the sorting process I had to cross off independence, connection, risk taking, authenticity, and more from my list. And so I landed on my two top values:
Creativity and fairness matter most to me.
A couple of days later, when I was sitting down at my desk to resume my finance work, the possibility of oil had vanished, because my value of fairness was front of mind, and to me nothing about oil is fair to people and planet. My regained clarity and grounding in my values cut right through the mental chatter.
What I tapped into right at that moment was that my fear of not yet having invested enough for retirement so as to be able to enjoy a carefree retirement, had led me to consider compromising my values. Immersing myself in this course which included and doing the maths of how much one has to invest now in order to be able to rest at retirement had me connect to this fear.
What’s this have to do with leadership?
Every leader has to make decisions which inspire fear in them. At present, we all are painfully conscious of how much uncertainty and volatility there is in our lives. Of how little control we have. And this is where we start making up all sorts of things about the future – and some leaders will paint that picture from fear, not able to see opportunities, but stuck in a dark painting.
As a leader you may fear how your decisions will make your life hard and how they will impact those you lead. Daring leaders aren’t so lucky as not to fear. On the contrary, I would argue that they are more conscious about it. And that this enables them to not let fear drive their decisions. Instead they get conscious about their values and ground their choices in those.
Daring leaders are grounded in their #1 value.
And that’s why being connected to 1 or 2 values is so much more powerful than having a list of 10 values. In a moment of stress, it just is easier to connect to the one value that guides you, always.