Improvisational Leadership: Part 2 – Values


I’m totally showing my age here but when I was growing up Peter Frampton was kind of a big deal.  For those of you who don’t know who he is…let’s just say he was/is a rock singer.  Well – he had a song called “Do You Feel Like I Do.”  I don’t think the song ever lasted less than ten minutes.  Not because the song itself was written that way but because it was always played with an extended guitar solo.  Frampton would sing a few verses and then the band would land on a “riff”… a three chord progression that the band would continue to play behind him as he rocked out.

Riffs are a set of repeated chords that basically give parameters upon which the improviser (soloist) can do their work.  Just listen for it.  Riffs are the foundation of the improvisation – the boundaries upon which the improviser must play or things just get ugly.

Just like good rock and roll — good leadership has a riff.  It’s called values.  Values are the foundations upon which action is supported.  If actions and values don’t align then the system (the song) doesn’t sound right.  It’s off.  Therefore, unless you’ve got a set of really solid values (chords) then be careful taking off on any improvisation because it will sound confusing at best and just downright terrible at worst.

I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here but one of the most visible examples that I see of this in current days is connected with the political world.  I don’t think I have to name any names here because it feels that everyone has an opinion about the current American political game.  If you consider yourself a conservative you probably see great incongruence with Barack Obama and if you are on the other end of the spectrum you might say the same thing about the current republican candidate/s for president.  In fairness, most of us only get a small portion of the larger story that is behind many of the decisions these people have to make.  That said, when someone’s actions don’t appear to line up with what they profess their values to be it’s a sure pathway to distrust.

So, what are values?

Values are the underpinnings of our lives.  They’re the non-negotiables – the “I will do this” of our existence.  For instance – family could be a value or your work or watching every episode of MASH.  Just like worldview these aren’t necessarily about right or wrong – but they are about what we believe and who we are – deep down.  What we value will always win the day no matter what we say.  It may not be easy but what we truly value will always emerge like riffs that keep coming to the surface no matter what the tune is that we may say we are improvising on.

A personal story.

Almost six years ago my wife and I moved several hours from our home of almost twenty years for me to take a new job.  At the time she had a job she really loved – and she was good at it.  It was a big sacrifice for her to move so that I could take the job – but she did it.  Thankfully, in the years since the move she has found her way into a new position where she is not only using her best gifts but (in my opinion) making a big difference.

Well – about two months ago I lost that job.

Now – in public I say that I value my wife and her opinions but one of the first thoughts when this all came down was NOT – “Wow, I wonder what Darla would like to do?”  Actually my thoughts were very selfish.  I wondered if we were going to have to move again.

When I told her about the job loss she was very supportive.  She gave me time to process – even when I would mention the ideas of jobs elsewhere.  Thankfully, at some point along the journey, a value decision was made and I asked her what she thought about a possible move.

When we talked, not surprisingly, she had an opinion.  She wanted to stay in our current location.  Her preference was to keep working where she was at.  The more I thought about it the more I knew that she deserved that.  The idea that I might have to eliminate vocational options for myself was hard for me.  It pushed up against other values in my.  But the decision was made – “I will not take a long distance job that will require a move because I’m committed to my wife and this season needs to be priority for her – and us.”

Now – before you think too well of me – this was not a cake walk for me.  I’m a pretty selfish guy.  My Dad was always the main breadwinner and I still have trouble being the secondary income guy.  You’d think I would be over that by now – but no.

Decisions like this take effort.  Sometimes they take a bit of stumbling in order to get to the right place.  But at some point – my actions will either line up with my values or I will need to declare different values.  Either my wife deserves to have the vocational top spot in this season (just like I had six years ago) or she doesn’t.  That will be the riff that I improvise on – period.  The great leadership improvisations of our lives are always – always based on solid, congruent riffs (values) – always.

Values are not about ease – they are about clarity.  They are constantly being refined and tested.  Heck, I’m in my fifties and I still wrestle with what it means to own what I really believe – not only when I get it right but when I get it wrong.

So, what is the riff behind your improvisation?   I promise you – it’s playing.  Do you hear it?

Stay tuned…

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