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Values Driven Leadership

By Basil Chen

The world jointly exhaled with guarded optimism when Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca announced the success of their COVID-19 vaccine. According to Trudie Lang, who directs the Global Health Network at the University of Oxford: “To go from identifying a new virus to having several vaccines at the point of applying for regulatory approval is an incredible milestone for science” (Cohen, J. 2020) and if I might add, it is indeed a giant leap forward for mankind. This example of grit, innovation, and collaboration reinforces the notion that business in general represents a force for the good and society through the institution of business can profoundly affect individual’s well-being.

Business is the best engine of value creation: it provides useful products and services to its customers, it creates jobs and prosperity, and it pays taxes. That said, we do need to recognize an obvious fact regarding profit seeking organizations – they are relentlessly driven to add value to their firm; stated more forcefully, they are “genetically coded” to make money. With this predisposition, business embarks on an eternal quest to seek out organizational competitive advantage that is sustainable over time.   

The Search for the Holy Grail

Companies use a myriad of strategies to obtain sustainable competitive advantage: from generic strategies such as overall low-cost provider; focused-low cost; broad differentiation; focused differentiation; and best-cost provider to some unconventional strategies such as holacracy (a self-management team paradigm e.g., Zappos). Irrespective of the strategy employed, both scholars and practitioners generally agree that effective leadership (which is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals) is indispensable in enhancing organizational performance; in fact it is the invisible “grist” that powers the organizational “mill.”

Now not all leaders are cut from the same cloth – what about leaders like Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom; Ken Lay of Enron; Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco and Bernard Madoff (who devised one of the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of finance)? They all suffered from fundamental character flaws.

According to Joanne B. Cuilla (Cuilla, 2005) how leaders get their followers to do things (motivate, impress, influence, inspire, and persuade) and how the goals are to be decided (forced obedience or voluntary consent) have normative implications. Cuilla further argues that after an exhaustive examination of definitions in leadership studies, perhaps the ultimate question is not “What is the definition of leadership?” The ultimate point of studying leadership is “What is good leadership?”

The use of the word good here has two dimensions; morally good and technically good or effective. For the statement “She is a good leader” to be true, it must be true that she is effective and also ethical. As we begin to dig and explore the general notion of leadership we notice that ethical moral dimensions are central to leadership and it is not an amoral phenomenon. Contemporary leadership theories such as ethical leadership, transformational leadership and authentic leadership (the list is not exhaustive) are grounded in solid moral foundation.

The Fragrance of Values Driven Leadership

Ethical Leadership             

Ethics is concerned with the kind of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate at a particular period in time. Furthermore, ethics is concerned with the virtuousness of individuals and their motives.  Current advocates of virtue-based theory stressed that more attention should be given to the development and training of moral values. Rather than telling people what to do, attention should be focused on telling people what to be, or helping them to become more virtuous.

Transformational Leadership  

This approach is concerned with improving the performance of followers and developing followers to their fullest potential. People who exhibit transformational leadership qualities often have a strong set of internal values and can be counted on to do the right thing, and they are effective in motivating followers to act in ways that support the greater good rather than their self-interest. Transformational leaders are strong role models for their followers with a highly developed set of moral values and a self-determined sense of identity.

Authentic leadership  

In response to leadership failures, authentic leadership is emerging to address the demands for genuine, trustworthy, and good leadership. Authentic leadership describes leadership that is transparent, morally grounded, and responsive to people’s needs and values. Research identified four components that form the foundation of authentic leadership theory: 1) Self-Awareness; 2) Internalized moral perspective; 3) Balanced processing; and 4) Relational Transparency.

Integration of the Three Leadership Theories  

Leadership is not an amoral phenomenon – it carries with it an explicit moral dimension where one is deeply rooted in authenticity and has the potential of transforming both leaders and followers. Pedagogically, one could argue that true leadership is underpinned by authenticity and is propelled by transformational and ethical actions to produce extraordinary results.

Silicon Valley’s Values Connection

As we deepen our exploration of virtues and values with intensity; we will be drawn irresistibly into the flame of truth along with an unquenchable thirst to seek out the source of the nectar.   Therefore, it not surprising that many tech titans including Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Page (Google), and Jeffrey Skoll (eBay) from Silicon Valley visited India to find solace and meaning. In April 1974 Steve Jobs went to India to study Indian spirituality and planned to meet Neem Karoli Baba (an Indian Guru/Saint made famous in the West by Richard Alpert aka “Ram Das,” a former Sociology professor from Harvard).

Although, Jobs never met Neem Karoli Baba in person he did spend time in his ashram and was influenced by Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings. Years later Mark Zuckerberg recounts how his mentor, Steve Jobs counseled him to visit Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram which he thought would be a good place for Zuckerberg to reflect on the future of his company, Facebook (Gowan, A. 2015).

I would be remiss if I did not mention the names of sons and daughters nurtured under the Indian sun. Here is a small sampling of notable business leaders rooted in ethical business practices and have made significant contribution to society: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Indra Nooyi, Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar, Adi Godrej, Adar Poonawalla, and NR Narayana Murthy. I cite these examples to make the case that as we plumbed the depths of our beings we tap into the fountain of life’s core values of honesty, non-violence, fortitude, and access to a moral compass that can differentiate between “right” and “wrong;” thereby leaving ourselves fully transformed, which in turn leads to societal transformation.  

To conclude, I offer up three take-away items for our reflection: 1) we fully acknowledge that leadership is not an amoral phenomenon, in fact it is underpinned by ethical morals and values; 2) we continue to develop, refine, and test the ideas as espoused by scholars and practitioners in the crucible of organizational life – from the boardroom to the lunchroom; and 3) at an individual/personal level, whether it is in my house, your house or the White House the musical note that flows and guides our lives would be one that is anchored in and driven by values.


1. Cohen, J. (2020, November 18). ‘Incredible milestone for science.’ Pfizer and BioNTech update their promising COVID-19 vaccine result
2. Cuilla, Joanne B. (2005). Ethics, the heart of leadership Greenwood Publishing
3. Gowan, A. (2015, October 31). Inside the Indian temple that draws American tech titans

Dr. Basil Chen, Ph.D., MBA, CPA, CMA, (For Canadian Institute of Sathya Sai Education)

Dr. Chen is Professor of Accounting and Finance at The Business School, Centennial College, Toronto, Canada. His research interests include values driven leadership; positive organization identity; positive organization scholarship; virtuous organizational practices; and performance measurements. He received his Ph.D. in Values Driven Leadership from Benedictine University (Chicago).

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