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The portrait of a leader

In a unique research project Jörg Reckhenrich created artworks and explored, with Pleuntje van Meer, the development and meaning of ...

By Jörg Reckhenrich and Pleuntje van Meer 04 November 2010

In a unique research project Jörg Reckhenrich created artworks and explored, with Pleuntje van Meer, the development and meaning of values among a group of international leaders.


Theportraitofaleader

In forums of debate during the recent economic crisis, the topic of values was of particular interest to business commentators. After the first wave of discussion regarding structural or systemic failures and consequent responsibilities, a second wave focused on the attitudes, values and behaviours of the executives and business managers involved. In the middle of this controversy, the Harvard Business Review published a special edition (June 2009) with three articles on the topic of trust. Some of the conclusions were that leaders who failed their organisations and shareholders had not made their true values transparent and that consumers and markets had trusted some leaders too readily.


Established literature in the fields of psychology and leadership asserts that a clear set of values provides a foundation for leaders in how they operate and in the manner in which their employees maintain ethical norms. Values and ethical norms provide a framework by which leaders can orientate themselves in terms of choices and actions in day-to-day life. Values can change due to changing responsibilities, a significant life event (such as the birth of a child) or other high-impact personal developments. Values are not always explicit or even conscious, but they are an inherent part of our human mindset. They guide us, in our sense of right and wrong, in how we interact with other people and in making decisions. In that sense values have an ethical as well as a practical impact.

Much of the academic debate about values focuses on their impact on a company’s culture, underpinned by empirical studies or statistics showing that companies with strong adaptive cultures based on shared values outperform others. But we explored the meaning of values for individual leaders through a research project titled “Value Creation - Imagine the Unseen”. This project sought to portray the core values of leaders of international organisations through art. Over a period of 2 years, a series of painted portraits was created based on qualitative interviews that explored leaders’ personal values. Each artwork aimed to gain insights into a leader’s personal style, or leadership “signature”.


The art approach


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“What are the most important values that guide you in your daily work?” We asked this question as part of a set of semi-structured interviews with 25 senior executives from a range of industry sectors. The outcomes of these interviews were then synthesised to create a series of 25 artworks as black and white painted portraits. Each artwork showed a leader accompanied by three core personal values, which were integrated as written words into the portrait. These terms were explored during the interview. We asked all the leaders to tell stories that described their most important values, what they mean and how these values guide them in making choices in their daily work. We also asked where these values came from and how they developed over time. After the interview, each leader was asked to choose a background that he or she felt was most appropriate for the painting. All of the parts — the image of the leader, the chosen background and the values revealed in the interview — merged in the portrait as a whole.


While working on the portraits and asking leaders what type of background they felt strongly about, we frequently found that their choice of a certain background mirrored the context in which the leader performed his or her professional role. This context or “stage” represented an important external point of reference in that the stage represented the nature and choice of team members, business structure and the main stakeholders impacting the leader.
walterthumbWhat seemed random at the beginning emerged through the series of interviews as important — the background stage as a metaphor of the environment and situation of a leader. For instance, in a portrait of General Johann-Georg Dora, the second highest officer of the German Army, one can see a television set quite close to his head. Dora explained in the interview how his decisions depend on quick information. A running TV, switched to an information channel, delivered a constant flow of worldwide general information. In the painting, it looks as if he has an ear constantly tuned to the world around him. Reflecting on these experiences, we started to see how these backgrounds represented the perspective of the leader on his situation. This perspective represents external points of reference and is therefore an element of a leader’s signature.


The implicit ethic of values


Since the signature of a leader is greatly defined by his internal points of reference, one part of the artistic concept was to integrate the stories of the leader into the painting. Values being key in this, we found it important to condense them to the essential ones. Through the stories the leaders told us, we figuratively explored their landscape of values and gained a broader understanding about their personal choices. We saw how they work with values in a practical way, creating meaning for themselves and the organisation. Doing so emphasised that, even if two people have the same values, their meaning might be totally different as they stem from a different character, are embedded in different contexts and have been shaped through different life experience. When we spoke with leaders about the meaning of a specific values set and to what kind of action this led them, it became clear to us how personal values really are.

Instead of searching for a specific set of values or ethical standards, our curiosity was focused on finding the meaning each value had for an individual. We found that this shifted the conversations more deeply into drivers and motivations and also brought about some direct feedback on how values play an important role in decision making. As Fritz Simon, co-founder of the Management Centre of University Witten/Herdecke, offered in one of the dialogues: “As a decision-making person you have to ask yourself … which values are relevant? At that moment when you have to make the decision, you choose and position the values … appropriate for the situation. You then have to talk to the people and explain this.”

In values-based decision making, leaders set a tone for their organisations and create the appropriate culture in the long term. Further, if one looks at which decision he or she has to make and sets values as criteria for this, the process of decision making becomes more a choice than a reaction. Simon added that, in talking about values, one has to look carefully at which decision he wants to make and how to make it:


  • What are the choices the business has and on what criteria should the decision be made? Directly said: does a board make a decision to distribute a dividend but to let go of 6,000 people, or does the board decide to stay with the 6,000 people and to distribute a lower dividend? Always, an organisation has to realise which game they are in. So, the question has to be asked differently if the company is listed on the stock market. Then you might ask: could the organisation stay independent if they keep the 6,000 people, or will they go bankrupt or be acquired?
  • Through dialogue with other people, so Simon says, we have to find out which action is appropriate and which not to a specific situation. This way we can find out about our internal points of reference and values and if they are applicable and relevant to the situation. This is the implicit ethic of values that they come to the surface and our actions become arguable, not only as a matter of fact beyond that, to what we believe in and stand for.


Three types of values


At the beginning of the project, we expected overlapping value patterns among the interviewed leaders, given that they come from the same generation and level of responsibilities. However, the range and differences we found was quite broad. Looking deeper, we recognised three parameters on the source of their values and how they were created on a personal level.

At the beginning of the project, we expected overlapping value patterns among the interviewed leaders, given that they come from the same generation and level of responsibilities. However, the range and differences we found was quite broad. Looking deeper, we recognised three parameters on the source of their values and how they were created on a personal level.


  1. First, most of the values that are important to us are based on early education and life experiences. These values come from our family or cultural background; we call them inherited values. They create a life pattern and are important for the early development of our character. Walter Homolka, founder of Abraham Geiger College, a centre of rabbinical education in Berlin, says:

    This particular orientation had a meaning for me since I was a child: trust in human rationality, insight in the necessity of self-discipline and the belief in the creative force of humanity. My parents had always encouraged me to start new things, to never stop acting and to always be prepared for new situations. This basic attitude stood the test through the various situations of my life. I am convinced that I had benefit from earlier experiences for each single situation of my life. I acknowledge this chronology of practical tests as a destiny, which lead me to my field of work today and will truly guide me in the future. The orientation along values is, in that sense, not a cumbersome duty; it is the precondition to … create life actively and to enrich it.
  2. Second, inherited values are often challenged through watershed events or life experiences. In a dilemma, a value is put to the test and is shaped through this experience. As a result, this value can become one’s strongest. We call them advanced or core values. As Manfred Tölsner, CFO of Bombardier, said:

    I observe and guide my employees during crisis situations. I see this definitely as a fundamental part of my active and people-orientated style of leadership. You develop an intuition [about] when a person needs support and when they will make individual choices and they “go through the fire” for it. Through that, you get to know creative patterns to deal with situations of crisis. I see it as a real success if an employee comes out of a crisis on a personal level stronger than before. This is real — training on the job — and other employees around take their benefit as well. If I summarise: through a crisis the particular values will show up which the person can count on — but also the company. Many of my executive managers, whom I was allowed to develop during my professional life, came out of such crisis situations.
  3. Third, values correspond to the specific agenda and function of the leader in the organisation. Here we are referring to an operational set of values, which must be in alignment with the external context in which a leader operates. For instance, a CFO needs a different set of values in his work compared to a CEO, who has more a general view. These values could be different from personal ones but should be aligned. We call them operational or functional values. Again Tölsner showed a clear understanding of that concept:

    I am a person of quick decision making. That needs courage. But it needs accountability as well, because every decision you made, even it was done as quick as possible, you have to stand for and has to be transparent. You need the same courage, probably much more, if you want to revise a decision, because the project business we are working in is full of high risks. Each decision or revision … is a balance of risk and chances. The project management that we do in the long-term railway business is permanent risk management and needs many decisions on a daily basis.


Developing a leadership signature


All of our encounters with the leaders were very different and showed an enormous variety in how they deal with their work. The way they operate, their signature, is made up of external reference points, linked to the stage that they work on, and internal reference points, the inner guidance they choose to live by.

We suggest that leaders reflect on the framework upon which values are based and recognise that individual values stem from a variety of sources:



  • Inherited values are those that our family tree brings to us. They are imprinted on our character through the family and culture to which we are born. They are the deeply rooted once.
  • Advanced values are those formed through watershed events. They can easily be linked to inherited values, yet stand out because they have been individualised, proven by challenging life situations. They create the character a person is mostly seen for.
  • Operational values are related to the task at hand. These values should be chosen consciously for the task and the context in which one is working in and guiding, but must be by all means in alignment to the other two categories.

Inherited values are those that our family tree brings to us. They are imprinted on our character through the family and culture to which we are born. They are the deeply rooted once.


Advanced values are those formed through watershed events. They can easily be linked to inherited values, yet stand out because they have been individualised, proven by challenging life situations. They create the character a person is mostly seen for.

Operational values are related to the task at hand. These values should be chosen consciously for the task and the context in which one is working in and guiding, but must be by all means in alignment to the other two categories.

A clear set of values provides a foundation for leaders in how they operate and in the manner in which their employees maintain ethical norms.


We figuratively explored their landscape of values and gained a broader understanding about their personal choices. We saw how they work with values in a practical way, creating meaning for themselves and the organisation.


Inherited values are often challenged through watershed events or life experiences and transform to advanced values as solid basis of character.

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