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Sam Allardyce, leadership and why personal values matter

This week has seen the dramatic fall of Sam Allardyce, Manager of the England football team, after allegations by undercover newspaper reporters posing as businessmen that he offered to help them to get around FA third party ownership rules, provisionally agreed a £400,000 contract, and made disparaging comments about a number of high profile personalities both in and outside the game.

The FA publicly cites that its priority is to maintain the highest standards of conduct in football “on and off the field. Nothing less is acceptable.” With widespread corruption claims within FIFA still echoing loudly from the last 12 months, not to mention a litany of controversial departures by previous England Managers over the years, it’s not surprising that the FA, seeking to uphold a clean image of authority and leadership, has taken swift action to eliminate further controversy and ill feeling associated with key figureheads who have demonstrated less than acceptable standards of behaviour. Into ‘errors of judgement’ we might read ‘poor personal values.’

Leaders will only engender trust and followship if their personal values match up to the expectations of their teams and the values of the organisations for which they work. Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer shows that 79% of those questioned felt that a CEO’s personal values are important in building trust: a higher score than ‘the obstacles they’ve overcome,’ ‘their personal success story’ or ‘their education and how it’s shaped them’.

Our personal values are integral to who we are and what we want to become. They affect the decisions we make, the success we achieve, cement our belief and commitment in what we need to overcome together and foster strength and unity. In leadership roles, they shape how people perceive and evaluate their leaders and influence how they themselves act and behave. Leaders need to understand that they set an example through their own actions and behaviours, which in turn can have a positive or negative impact on both the culture and reputation of their organisation, and the performance of individuals within it. Even when their own values are not shared by everyone, not being consistent nor adhering to their personal principles may encourage others to mimic their behaviour, create fear, ambiguity, confusion and recalcitrance, and engender a sense of mistrust and uncertainty. This can compromise effective teamwork, create low morale, divide teams into factions and drive siloed behaviour – not conducive to high performance in any organisation.

Being a senior leader in any organisation isn’t easy. Tough decisions and compromises frequently have to be made, which is when a leader’s personal values or ethics can be challenged.  Business results can of course still be achieved unethically in the short-term, but this is likely to have a negative impact on culture which will be far more damaging (and potentially costly) over the long-term. So it’s not just about what you achieve, but how you go about achieving it that matters. And the higher the leader climbs up the corporate ladder, the availability of peer-to-peer support and mentoring can become less obvious, in which case those personal values become a valuable mental check-list for tough decision-making.

Organisations should create a clear set of corporate values and ensure that in nurturing and developing their leaders they encourage them to clarify and be true to their personal values (which, ideally, will have some synergy with the corporate values). If, like Sam Allardyce, they result in some regrettable choices which clearly conflict with the values of or standards set by their organisation, the consequences can be dire – on both a personal and a corporate level.