Develop a leadership compass


On one school holiday break, I took my son walking in the mountains. Together we headed confidently up the steep path in bright sunshine, enjoying the amazing views. By mid-morning things had drastically changed. A thick fog dropped in and we couldn't see beyond our hands. I looked at the map and was adamant which way we should go. My son looked at his compass and said, “But Dad, that isn’t where north is”, as he pointed in a very different direction. If we got this decision wrong we really would be in serious trouble.

It’s in moments like this that one realises the difference between a map and a compass. A map is just a representation of the current reality on the ground. A compass works on the unchanging laws of nature, that cannot be influenced by people’s opinions. North is north!

In my experience effective leaders all carry an inner compass, a set of moral principles, that helps to them through every decision. Getting fit for moral leadership requires us to develop a moral compass that we can bring to any situation and ask,

What is the right thing to do here?

Let’s look at three areas that can be developed to build a moral compass – in my Vocation (where), in my Values (who) and in my Character (what).

1. Vocation – Where

A friend was reflecting with me one day on the behavior of her peers, with the words, “They all want that shiny look”. What she meant was that they all seemed fixated on how they presented themselves to others, like an attractive piece of sparkling jewelry. Their aim was to be someone that others would feel envious of.

The word vocation comes from the Latin root, “to call”. What is your calling in life? Or, more accurately, what is life calling you to do? Finding our vocation in life is neither

quick, nor easy. It is a process of continual learning and discovery. How is engaging with our vocation part of our moral compass? Knowing a sense of our vocation acts as a safeguard from being pulled in any “shiny” direction in our lives?

If you find yourself saying, “I want that job!”, then ask yourself….

“Why do I want it?” and “Will it build the story I want for my life?”

Spend a little time reflecting on these questions:

What issues get your attention in the world, as something that needs changing or supporting?

Where do you see the pain in the world around you? (It could be up the road from you, or further away, in other countries)

What’s the legacy you want to leave behind after you die?

2. Values – Who

Who we really are is only seen when we are under pressure.

Do we act kindly when tempers are fraying?

Do we continue to practice generosity when the economy is in downturn?

Our values dictate the behaviours’ we choose each day of our lives. If I’m obsessed with my reputation then I will do everything to ensure people admire me. We know we will never be all we aspire to be, but we can at least ensure that the behavioural direction we travel in life, increasingly conforms to that values we want to own.

I once asked a marketing director in a Finance company, “What matters most to you?”

“My family, for sure”, he said.

But he had just told me that he left home each morning before his children woke up and he arrived home after they had gone to bed and he had worked 60% of weekends for the past months! Aspired values, are not the same as lived values and it is the lived values that write the script in all of the world’s public and private scandals.

Here is some work to help discern our values.

Step 1. What are the values I aspire to? What really matters to me? Make a list of as many words as you can think of that are truly important to you.

Step 2. Look at your chosen, aspired values and answer this question: How would I behave under pressure if this value was alive and well in me?

Step 3. What behaviours can I start practicing each day, from today, that will build this muscle in this aspired value? For example: ensuring I take time to ask questions of the people I work with, to develop the value of listening and empathy.


3. Character – What

Our character is what we look like to others, not physically, but behaviorally. Character isn’t about a once off behavior, it’s about how we behave consistently over a long period of time. Everyone has a character; it is seen by others every day. The word Character originates from the Greek word charassein, which means to scratch or engrave. Every action, every behavior we take, makes scratches and engraves an image of who we are becoming in our character.

The process starts with our thoughts,

“I want to be successful, like my boss”

Which leads to feelings,

“I’d love that nice house, car and the prestige that surrounds him; it feels good”

Which leads to us taking actions,

“I will work long hours today”

Which lead to habits,

“I will keep working long hours every day”

Which cuts the groove of our character,

“Work controls my life” (He is developing the character of a workaholic)

We need to choose our character intentionally. That means asking ourselves,

“What kind of character do I want to be known for? Who do I want to become?”

Developing moral character doesn’t happen by accident, it is a conscious and daily act of personal leadership.

Peter Marshalls once said,

“If we don't stand for something, we will fall for anything”.

Two questions:

1. Check that you have responded to all of the questions suggested in the 3 areas above.

2. Share what values you want to define your life’s compass, with two friends. Then ask them to give you feedback and hold you accountable to your intentions.

Conclusion: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”


This is an adapted extract from Chapter 9: of the book

Doing The Right Thing – Getting Fit For Moral Leadership

by Trevor Waldock

*If you would like a free copy of the pdf version of the book please email [email protected]

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