The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership: A Presentation at the 10th Annual Leadership Forum by Harry Kraemer


I was fortunate to be invited to the 10th Annual Leadership Forum sponsored by the Chicagoland Chapter of the Project Management Institute on Friday, May 8th.   There were not just one but two keynote speakers, Harry Kraemer, who presented his ideas on how to build a world-class organization through values-based leadership, and Jon Mahalic, who was a member of PMI Global Board of Directors from 2009-2014.

Today’s post will cover Harry Kraemer’s presentation.   It was an introduction to his four principles of values-based leadership that he introduced in his previous book From Values to Action.   Those values are described further in his latest book Becoming the Best, which shows how to take those values and how to build values-based organizations at all levels.

1.  Introduction to Harry Kraemer

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. is an executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago, Illinois and a Clinical Professor of Management and Strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.   He was named the 2008 Kellogg School Professor of the Year.   He is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Baxter International Inc., a $12 billion global healthcare company.   He became Baxter’s chief executive officer in January 1999, and assumed the additional responsibility of chairman of Baxter’s board of directors in January 2000.   Mr. Kraemer is active in business, education and civic affairs. and serves on the board of directors of a number of corporations, in addition to being a member of the Dean’s Global Advisory Board of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

2.  Characteristics of Leaders

In an introduction to the subject of leadership, Harry Kraemer took us to a typical water-cooler conversation among employees who were complaining about a problem at the office.    He said there are those that complain, there are those that complain and say, “somebody should do something about this,” and those that complain and say, “let’s fix this!”   The latter group are the leaders, even though they may not yet have the title of leader within the company.

As he was saying this, I was reminded about how Douglas Adams said that the most useful problem-solving device for corporations and bureaucracies throughout the galaxy was the SEP field, where SEP stands for “Somebody Else’s Problem.”   If someone sees a problem, you just activate the SEP field, and voila, it disappears from view.   Well, yes, but the problem still exists.   Leaders are people who do NOT use the SEP field, but rather roll up their sleeves and start working towards a solution.

I was introduced to this principle right after I had taken a project management certification prep course.   After passing the exam, I went back to the VP Education of the PMI Orange County chapter I belonged to and told him that I thought that, although it was a good prep course, I thought there were some things that could be improved for the next group taking the course.    He immediately asked me, “hey, would you like to stick around and volunteer to help me put on the next course?   In that way, you can participate in improving it.”    I took him up on his challenge and did just that, helping out with the next three courses before moving to the Chicagoland area where I am now.   I think he instinctively felt that I was not just complaining for the sake of complaining, but had framed it in terms of process improvement for the future, and he dared me essentially to put my, well, not money, but my muscle where my mouth was.    That was an example for me of how to nurture the leadership instinct in others, and I’ve used it on others who have come up to me and said that things needed to be improved.    Well, I tell them, this is a great opportunity for you!

3.  The Prerequisites of Leadership

However, before leading others, Harry Kraemer said you need to lead yourself.   This is where the four principles of values-based leadership come in.   You need to develop the following:

  1. Self-reflection
  2. Balance
  3. True self-confidence
  4. Genuine humility

4.  Principle #1:  Self-Reflection

This is an examination, like peeling the layers of an onion, to find out what your values are, what your purpose is.   What really matters?   What kind of leader do you really want to be–are there are role models that come to mind?

Self-reflection is not self-absorption:    you need to challenge yourself on a regular basis by asking yourself these questions.

  • What did I say I was going to do?   What did I ACTUALLY do?
  • What am I proud of?   What am I NOT proud of?
  • How did I lead?   How did I end up following instead?
  • If I had today to do over again, what would I have done differently?

The Confucius-like formula he tells his students is:

  • if I’m not self-reflexive, how can say I know myself?
  • If I don’t know myself, how can I lead myself?
  • If I don’t lead myself, can I lead others?

5,  Principle #2:  Balance

You need to take the time to understand all sides of an issue.   You need to empathize with those who take those sides, even if you do not agree with those who hold them.     Or rather, ESPECIALLY if you do not agree with those who hold them.    One leadership secret he let the audience in on is that leaders actually rarely come up with the answers themselves.    However, they recognize the answers when they see them.    You have to be more interested in doing the right thing than in being right.

6.  Principle #3:  True Self-Confidence

You have to be comfortable in your own skin, but not complacent.   You need to surround yourself with people who are better at what you are NOT good at, to give you inspiration to improve.   So you need to know really only two things:

  1. What am I really good at?
  2. Who do I know who is really good at what I’m not good at?

As he talked about the subject, I thought about the Dunning-Kruger effect.   It is a cognitive bias where unskilled individuals have the illusion that they are competent, mistakenly assessing their own ability to be much higher than it actual is.   Conversely, highly competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, mistakenly assessing that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.     

7.  Principle #4:  True self-humility

If you ask people who are successful, “how did you get where you are today?,” most will say that they worked very hard or that they were born with talent.     However, a closer examination of the genesis of their success often shows factors which were outside of themselves, such as:

  • luck or timing
  • good people working with you

You should always have people in your life who knew you BEFORE you were successful so they can remind you of those humble origins.   When you look back and remember what it was like while you were climbing the ladder of success, and think fondly of those people who gave you help to get up that ladder, remember that feeling and treat those who are coming up the ladder behind you in the same way.

These four principles can ground you in the knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses, and give you impetus towards always working on improving those strengths and shoring up those weaknesses.    A great leader is always a work in progress.

On that last point, I recalled a book I am reading called Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which recounts Washington’s turning of defeat at the hands of the British in the winter of 1776 into a tactical triumph.   The purpose of the book is first to describe why this was such a pivotal moment in American history.    But it also is a pivotal moment in Washington’s evolution as a leader, because he was NOT always the consummate military genius that he showed himself to be during that crucial period.   During the French and Indian War, he made many mistakes, but he showed the ability to constantly learn from them.    He always demonstrated this last principle of true self-humility time and time again, which was a quality remarked by many of the other Founding Fathers who knew him.    I am going to finish the book with Harry Kraemer’s principles in mind and see how they apply to this sterling example of leadership, without which our country may have never survived the War of Independence.

I also plan to read Harry Kraemer’s subsequent book “Becoming the Best” and hope to apply its lessons to the organizational domains he sets forth in the book.    There is so much to learn from his principles of values-based leadership and for those who want to hear more about them, you can see a talk he gave at the Northwestern University Alumni Association in the Fall of 2013

If you want to be a leader, take charge of your life and watch the video and/or read Harry Kraemer’s books!.  I plan on investing the time to do so myself, and am confident it will reap dividends for years to come!

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