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Surfacing Leadership Values: The Power of “Edge of Your Bed Advice”

What criteria do you use to make the most significant personal and professional decisions in your life? If you’re interested in finding out, pull out your phone and text the following question to three people with whom you work closely: “What would you say is my personal leadership philosophy?” You’re going to learn a lot about how your leadership and decision-making is perceived through the answers you receive.  

A personal leadership philosophy is a clearly defined and articulated explanation of the criteria you use to judge your decisions and those of others. Most people can’t articulate it to themselves, let alone to those they lead and work with. I encourage you to begin thinking about it because research indicates that individuals who can articulate their personal leadership philosophy: 

  • Score 110% higher on measures of overall leadership effectiveness 
  • Are ranked 140% more effective as leaders by those they lead 
  • Have teams that report higher levels of pride, trust, willingness to work hard and productivity 
  • Score 135% higher on measures of trust   

Beyond everything else, a personal leadership philosophy is about consistency in decision-making, judgements and behaviors. Most of us can work with individuals with whose decisions we disagree, but it’s truly infuriating to work with people who are inconsistent in their decision-making. 

Consistent decision-making comes from having consistent decision-making criteria—and the most effective leaders are crystal clear on what they use to make decisions: their values. What follows is an exercise that will help you begin to surface your core leadership values so that you can more consciously and effectively use them to make decisions.   

The first step in establishing a personal leadership philosophy is to establish clarity on the personal values that will drive your decisions. That process begins by thinking about your “Edge of the Bed Advice.”   

Step One – The Edge of the Bed Advice 

The “edge of the bed” question is an icebreaker. It’s a way of getting people to start telling their stories while gaining insight and asking a question that helps others identify what their personal stories can teach others. It goes like this: 

Imagine it is the final night that your eldest child is living in your house (this may involve you imagining you have a child). Tomorrow they’re off to school, getting married, or moving away to start their first job. You’re walking by their room, and they call you in. As you sit down on the edge of their bed, they look up at you and ask, “Mom/Dad, what’s your best life advice? What are the things I need to know to make the most out of the rest of my life? What insights have most contributed to your happiness?” What would you tell them? 

Over the years I’ve heard some great answers: 

  • Only hurt people hurt others. 
  • Feel free to dismiss the judgements of anyone who isn’t as happy as you are. 
  • Ever seen a mud wrestling match? The winner is just as dirty as the loser at the end. Elevate situations, don’t escalate them. 
  • You may never see a baby squirrel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

The first step in identifying your core leadership values is to create a list of your own 30 pieces of edge of the bed advice. Your list is not a ranking; your insights need not appear in any particular order—write them down as they come to you. What’s important is you reflect on the sum of your experiences and identify lessons that could add value to others. Don’t feel your list needs to be created in one sitting. Take some time to reflect and use these tips to help put it together: 

  1. What wisdom have you received from others that has consistently made your life better? Pay it forward! Originality isn’t nearly as important as effectiveness in this exercise. 
  1. Think back to the last few times something blew up in your face and you thought, “Darn it, I know better than that!” What principle or piece of wisdom did you ignore in that situation? 
  1. List five of the happiest times in your life. Is there a common thread weaving those five times together—something you did or something you avoided doing? 
  1. Ask others what they would include on their lists. Your wisdom is often best unlocked when hearing that of others. 
  1. Create a note on your phone labeled “My Wisdom.” Take a few minutes each day over coffee, in the shower, or heading to work to ask, “What’s something I know to be true about_______?” Finish that sentence with any number of these: 
  • Disappointment 
  • Failure 
  • Family 
  • Fear 
  • Friendship 
  • Happiness 
  • Health 
  • Leadership 
  • Love 
  • Myself 
  • Stress 
  • Work 

Put this article aside until you’ve completed your list of 30 insights, then head on to step two below. 

Step Two: Reverse-Engineering Values 

Take a look at that list of 30 pieces of edge of the bed advice you created. 

Every single insight on your list, every piece of advice, every observation, every assertion you make about what is true or not true, or what you think someone should or shouldn’t do has at its foundation one or more values. You may not have realized this as you wrote each piece of advice down, but with each one you were encouraging yourself and others to do a better job embodying one or more values. 

The best way to surface the values that play the most significant role in your decision-making is to identify the foundational values behind each one of your pieces of edge of the bed advice.   

For each one of your pieces of insight, complete the following sentence: 

If someone was to take this piece of advice to heart and live by it each day, they would do a better job embodying the values of: _________ (and perhaps __________ and ___________). 

The values you fill in the statement above are the foundational values of that insight. Using the examples provided earlier, in each case, use the sentence above to reverse engineer the foundational values behind each piece of advice. 

Only hurt people hurt others. 

Foundational Values: Forgiveness, Empathy 

Feel free to dismiss the judgements of anyone who is not as happy as you are. 

Foundational Values: Self-Respect, Critical Thinking, Resilience 

Ever seen a mud wrestling match?  The winner is just as dirty at the end.  Elevate situations, don’t escalate them.    

Foundational Values: Class, Self-Respect, Patience, Discipline 

You may never see a baby squirrel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

Foundational Values: Critical Thinking 

Move through your personal list of insights and reverse engineer one to three foundational values for each. At the end of the exercise, you should find yourself with a list of between 30 and 90 values. Three or more of them will likely have occurred far more frequently than the others. Those are the key decision-making values on which you should focus. One or more of them may surprise you. Just remember that each piece of advice you wrote emerged from your actual lived experience, which is by far the best indicator of what truly drives you. 

Step Three: Define the Things You Want to Define You 

Now look at the values that occurred most frequently. No doubt they sound great—they’re often words like integrity, kindness, accountability and equity. The challenge is that while we often use value words to judge ourselves and other people (often swiftly and harshly), most people can’t define what the values they claim to prioritize actually mean. 

Remember: A value is only a value if it is used as criteria for decision-making. Otherwise, it’s just something that looks good on a website, pinned to a bulletin board at the office, or splashed on an election sign. However, it’s impossible to use a value to make decisions if you aren’t clear on a value’s definition. If you haven’t clearly defined what integrity means—if you haven’t turned it into a finish line so that you know when you’ve crossed it—you could be (and you probably are) embodying your core values every day of your life and you’re not giving yourself permission to celebrate that fact. That’s significant because it’s the celebrations in our lives and our organizations that give us pride, momentum and strength, and I believe that setting goals is basically planning celebrations. You set goals for your organization, for your career and for your financial life. I argue that true leadership is spending just as much time and just as many resources setting and chasing goals for your character daily as you do for your organization, career and financial life. 

To define the values that have emerged as most important to you, run a thought experiment. Imagine someone highly intelligent says to you, “English is not my first language. That word does not exist in my language. Please explain what it means in the simplest English terms possible, and begin your answer with the words, ‘A commitment to ….’”  

In other words, integrity is a commitment to … what? Accountability is a commitment to … what? It is only after clearly defining the behaviors and expectations associated with a value that you can truly understand what it means to make decisions true to that value. 

The Great Untapped Organizational Resource: Personal Value Clarity 

Investing time in better understanding the values you hope will drive your decisions isn’t some sort of “touch-feely” personal reflection exercise—research shows that it is a crucial aspect of personal and organizational performance. Leadership researchers James Kouzes and Barry Posner examined the impact personal value clarity had on workplace engagement and retention and discovered that personal value clarity was linked directly to higher levels of employee pride, engagement, happiness and overall productivity at work. Spending time helping ourselves and our employees identify their personal values so they can feel like they are living them through their work is one of the great untapped resources available to organizations looking to move to the next level.  

When you have taken the time to identify and clearly define your core values you’ve created an invaluable personal and professional tool: a clear set of criteria for decision-making. Once you’ve taken this step, decision-making becomes a simple process though not an easy one. When you’re faced with a decision, you examine the options available to you and ask, “which of these options is most consistent with my stated values?” I say simple but not easy because the challenging truth of values-based decision-making is that often the option most consistent with your values absolutely sucks. It’s not the one that allows you to avoid consequences, take the money, keep the job, or remain in the relationship. However, it’s almost always the option you’re happiest you chose five years from now.  

If you haven’t taken the time to clearly identify and define your values, the question to you is this: What criteria have you been using to make decisions your whole life? For most of us (myself included) the unfortunate answer is most of our decisions have been driven by a single criterion: Which of these options will avoid the most consequences right now? Unfortunately avoiding consequences and violating values tend to go hand-in-hand. 

Since I have embraced the process of values-based decision-making I admit I have lost things: money, jobs and relationships. However, I have never been lost as a leader or a person. Your values are your North Star, and the edge of the bed advice exercise is just one step to clearing the clouds that can obscure them. 

For more information on surfacing and acting on your values every day or to check out additional examples of edge of the bed insights, visit 

Drew Dudley is the Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of “This is Day One: A Practical Guide to Leadership That Matters” and the former director of the Leadership Development Program at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected]