The five practices of values-based leadership have transformed hundreds of organizations across every sector on the smallest nonprofits to the giants of the industry. Now learn how to use these same practices to transform your team, your relationships and your life through Inner Will.
Leadership is a choice and it begins with you. Become a better, stronger leader today, regardless of your official title or position, by learning how to understand yourself and others on a deep authentic level, you’ll unlock the power to make a positive difference, overcoming challenges and resolving conflicts that once felt insurmountable.
Most importantly, InnerWill provides the keys to true resilience, change is fundamental, to growth and new ventures won’t always go the way that you planned. Learn how to motivate yourself and others to roll with the punches and keep moving forward, becoming the kind of effective leaders who surpass goals again and again.
Here is my conversation with Dr. Thomas Epperson:.
Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, we’re joined by Dr. Thomas Epperson: who just came out with a new book titled, InnerWill: Developing Better People, Braver Leaders and A Wiser World Through The Practice of Values Based Leadership. Dr. Thomas Epperson:, welcome to the show.
Thomas Epperson: Benji, thanks for having me. As you were reading that title, I thought, that is a mouthful.
Benji Block: Well, I like it. I know it’s a bit long in the subtitle there but you’re getting across the main theme which is great to have on the cover there. Tell us a little bit about the “why” behind this project and maybe, “Why now?”
Thomas Epperson: So, values-based leadership is something that our institute and our parent organizations has been working on for a real long time and our hope is to distill down all of the lessons and practices that we’ve been learning and using for years into something that’s easily digestible, something that can help people; whether they’re at work, at home, in their communities, in their places of worship.
We ultimately believe that leadership is a choice, not a title and so, we’re just literally trying to help people make a few more leadership choices in the course of their lives.
Benji Block: Nice, I love that. Okay, I mean, leadership can be kind of broad as a topic, maybe we’ll define it here in a second but tell me first, your ideal reader, who you’re imagining picking up this book?
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, because we believe that leadership is a choice, we really feel like it can be for anybody in a role where they have to influence other people. It really takes some skill and some self-awareness and some choices in order to help people to do that effectively. It’s also for people as they’re working on themselves trying to get a little bit better every single day, it helps them have a path to do that and build relationships, otherwise, build trust.
Then sometimes, it’s about facing really difficult challenges and being able to lead with both courage and compassion in doing so.
Benji Block: Yeah, okay, so I want to start with two definitions in a story, if you will. You just basically touched on leadership saying leadership is a choice but, maybe give us more of a full-on definition, what do you think of when you think of leadership and let’s start there.
Thomas Epperson: We practice a specific philosophy of leadership called values-based leadership. That’s really about, living, working and leading in alignment with your core values, your deepest held beliefs and by doing that, by setting that example, you allow others to do the same.
By acting on your values, modeling it for others, it really does spark other people to follow that example, to find what’s most impactful for them to really figure out what they value, what their deepest held beliefs are and to make their own choices. When we’re doing that, you tend to perform better, we tend to be happier, we tend to build more trust.
There’s a ton of research behind why it’s such a good thing and ultimately, when we’re acting on our values, institutionally over time, it helps us reach our potential. At the end of the day, values-based leadership is living, working and leading in alignment with our core values and helping others to do the same in order to ignite their potential.
Implementing Value-Based Leadership
Benji Block: Very concise, well-stated, I love that. Let’s go to the personal side here because my second follow-up was going to find value-based leadership. You did a great job at doing that right there in the first one but give us a little bit of your, maybe, personal story, how you came into leadership and really believing in this values-based leadership approach?
Thomas Epperson: Our organization, our parent company, had gone through a lot of really challenging times where we had decentralized the business and [it] caused — really had shattered the culture and getting really toxic and there was a lot of dysfunctions and so we started looking for ways to improve it. We tried a bunch of different stuff, we brought out a bunch of consultants, we practice with everything under the sun and finally, one of my old mentors had gone to one of our big partners and asked, “Hey, who do you know who could help us with this?”
They said, “Hey, you should go talk to the whole family down in Texas.” The whole family, they owned the largest Caterpillar dealership in the United States and they own the San Antonio Spurs — or at least, they used to. They were practicing this thing called values-based leadership.
They send us one of their executives and he comes walking in the door, he’s all taxes, you know. He’s got the big belt buckle and he’s got the shiny boots, he basically challenged our executives by saying, “I want you to write down everything that’s wrong with this company.” Of course, they had been fussing and fighting and a had a ton of conflict for five straight years so, they had a lot to say.
They just started filling up these papers with all these stuff about what was wrong with the company and then, after about two minutes, he called into a hall and pulls 20 bucks out of his pocket and says, “All right, 20 bucks who wrote me at the top of their list.”
Benji Block: I like it.
Thomas Epperson: Not only did these guys hate one another, they now hated him with a deep and abiding passion. He was really the first person who ever held up a mirror to us and said, “If you want to make any kind of change in this organization or in your lives, it starts with you.” I was a part of the organization at that time, I’d seen a lot of the and dysfunction and was really part of our effort to transform ourselves, to adopt values-based leadership, to really move our culture, to develop the skills required to lead. There were a ton of lessons along the way and it really did help us within the organization.
It helped us be more effective with our customers, and now in our world, our team’s more effective. There were so many things that were upside about it but what we also started to hear was that people were taking these ideas of values-based leadership home with them and they were using it with their partners, with their spouses and with their kids. It was really compelling and for me personally, young father at the time, my son was six weeks old — and I tell this story in the book but — he’s six weeks old and I am holding him. It’s a Sunday morning and my wife comes down the stairs and she takes one look at me and says, “Stop that.”
She and I are both big personalities and we’ve got strong opinions and so typically what would have happened in the moment like that is, it would start an argument that would have gotten loud quickly and really escalated.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Thomas Epperson: I had this moment of clarity as this was going on and thought to myself, “What if I try some of this leadership stuff?” So, I look at my wife and I say, “You know, honey? All I want to be is a good dad and I want to be a good husband and when you yell at me, it makes me feel stupid and when I feel stupid, I want to fight and I don’t want to fight.”
This strong, independent woman that is my wife burst into tears and she says, “You’re a good dad, you’re a good husband and I haven’t showered in six weeks, I’m so tired.” At that moment, — by the way, my wife hates that story — in that moment that was really a huge difference for us in charting a different path. All because we were willing to take these leadership ideas from work and use them in our lives.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Thomas Epperson: That, for me, made all the difference and it really forge my commitment to this work, it forged my commitment to working myself and my relationships and to really put all these ideas around values-based leadership into practice.
Benji Block: I want to focus on one thing going back to the beginning of what you said there, and then we’ll move into the practices that are given away in the book. I’m imagining that guy coming in from Texas, he tells you, “Hey, look at you, start with you” right? Look in the mirror kind of situation. What is the action item that you walk away with, is it self-reflection? What became the first step for the organization to start to mend?
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, it’s a really great question. First, we had to get really clear on what was important to us as an organization, i.e. what our values were and we had to get really clear on what they look like in action, we had the operationalize them. The second part of that was really about us taking a hard look in the mirror at all of our individual leadership and seeing what was awesome about us but also, being able to see the gaps and being okay with both and being willing to work on ourselves to use those strengths and plug those gaps and ultimately, try to be more effective every single day.
Yes, we had to work on our culture and yes, we had to work on the business but we couldn’t do that without working on ourselves first.
Benji Block: Right, working on yourself ends up leading right into these value practices in a sense. We’ll jump in there and I want to probably jump a bit around today; I’ll highlight one and then maybe have you just pick one that you want to highlight as well but, there’s five practices for value-based leadership in the book. Do you want to run us quickly through the five and from a high level and then we can sort of dive in?
Thomas Epperson: Sure. Five practices and they’re interdependent, which means that they work with one another in order to help you be more effective. It’s not linear, it’s not for second, third, fourth, it’s literally picking up which practice that you need most in the moment.
The first practice is all about building awareness. Being able to see yourself clearly, being able to understand how you’re wired, what you believe, what you value, what your style is, and to really gain a deeper understanding of who you are.
The second practice is all about realizing potential. It really means, stepping back and asking yourself the big questions: why are you here, what’s your purpose as you walk this earth, what kind of environment is going to bring out the best in you? What kind of impact do you want to have on other people?
The third practice is all about developing relationships, which means, understanding people and what they need, what they think, what they feel, understanding what they value and what their styles are. Ultimately, adapting your approach in order to build trust and strengthen connection because we’re all in the people business, whether we realize it or not.
The fourth practice is about taking action. It really means that we’re going to run towards the fire versus away from it. It means, acting on our values intentionally, making conscious choices that align with who we are and who we want to be, that align with the impact we want to have. Even when the world tells us not to, right? It’s about standing up, even when other people are telling us to stand down.
Then the final practice is all about practicing reflection. So, really taking the time to slow down long enough to ask ourselves, “Do we act on our values, do we make conscious choices? Do we have the impact that we wanted to?” And then to learn from that experience and apply it to our future behaviors.
Benji Block: I love all five. Tell me the difference you see between awareness and reflection?
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, that’s a great question. Awareness is really kind of that baseline that you need to really deeply understand who you are. I’ve been working intentionally on myself for 20 plus years now and I’m always surprised to learn something new about me. We really do have to become students of ourselves and really unpack all of the wonderful goodness, messy work in progress that we are because nobody’s perfect.
We’re human beings, not perfect beings. There’s always more to discover about how we’re wired and the beliefs and assumptions that underpin those values versus practicing reflection is more of this in the moment checkup, you know? You really want to check in with your intentions and check in with your goals and check in with the impact that you want to have and challenge yourself to be really intentional about making those choices.
One is more of a deep, long-term understanding and the other is kind of in the moment, did we do what we say we were going to do?
Benji Block: That’s a great clarification there. I wonder when it comes to awareness, this might be a natural conundrum that you have to walk through often, I would assume. How do you teach someone awareness, Tom?
Thomas Epperson: A ton of different ways to doing it. The first way is through instruments. There’s a ton of great instruments out there around your personality style, there’s great instruments around understanding what your values are, there’s exercises that you can go through that really help you begin to unpack and give language to kind of who you are. That’s a step.
Another step, probably even more important is feedback. Feedback is everywhere when we look for it. Feedback literally is just data that helps us achieve our goals. Can we, as leaders, go get feedback on what we do well, can we go get feedback on what we do not so well? Can we get feedback on what other people, how they see us both in the moment and over time?
It’s really becoming a researcher and putting yourself under the microscope and then over time, really using that practice of reflection to understand even more about ourselves as we go through our daily lives because you’re going to grow and change over time but that deep fundamental truth about yourself, there’s always more to learn about.
Benji Block: When you’re going to other people for feedback and obviously, several ways you can do feedback but is there a question you found particularly insightful to ask that leads to some great feedback from others?
Thomas Epperson: It’s interesting, because everybody’s a little bit different and we encourage people to be ruthlessly pragmatic.
Benji Block: Okay.
Thomas Epperson: Finding a method of feedback that works for you. In some places, people are more introverted and shyer and they need some time to reflect so, emailing them a couple of questions about, “Hey, what’s my greatest strength? Hey, what’s something I could work on? Hey, how do you see me? Is there a way to unlock that?” For other people, they’re more verbal. For me personally, I need to get in the room with a whiteboard with other people and ask them a bunch of questions about, “Hey, when did you see me at my best? When did you see me at my worst?”
“What did you wish I would do differently? You know, my goal is X, Y and Z, can you help me achieve it by giving me some data that will help me get closer?” There’s a ton of different ways that we can get the feedback that we need and I would say find the method that works for you and just know that most people are nice and they are not going to tell you that your baby is ugly. Well, you need people in your life that are going to say, “Woo, what a baby!”
Alignment Allows Organizations To Lead and Influence Effectively
Benji Block: Yeah. Okay, so you have this XY axis, which is explaining this over an audio medium probably isn’t the probably isn’t the best but I’ll try. You have thinking and feeling and then introversion-extroversion. For me personally, I would be an extroverted thinker. I guess first off, I would love to know what you are and then also with that knowledge, how has it helped you sort of adapt over time within your leadership style and sort of come to a place where you’re more aware of the way you move through the world?
Thomas Epperson: So, if you go back to Jungian psychology, a lot of the personality instruments that we use today, whether it’s DISC or Myers-Briggs or even Insights Discovery, they go back to Jung and the idea of human beings, we fall on a scale of introversion-extroversion, thinking and feeling. Introversion-extroversion is really where we get our energy and thinking and feeling is how we make decisions.
Most personality surveys dump us in the middle of these axis in some way, shape or form. For me, I am with Team Benji; extroverted thinker all the way. Basically what that means is I talk to think, I tend to be pretty action-oriented, I tend to be pretty tasked-focus. I can be insensitive to the needs of others, I can under-focus on quieter folks and what they really need from me, sometimes I am accused of being arrogant or lacking empathy.
There’s a ton about my personality both good and bad that makes me effective in some way, situations and less effective in others. I am certainly a messy work in progress.
Benji Block: As you become more aware of that, is there any specific situations you’ve been put in where you’re like, “Oh wow, I see a great progression maybe towards the quieter person,” you know? As you highlight some of those things that maybe weaknesses but give me an example of a way you’ve moved in the right direction.
Thomas Epperson: You know, our practice of developing relationships at the end of the day is all about adaptability so, it’s about understanding what’s required to be effective in a particular situation or with a particular person or with a particular group of people. What I’ve been doing for years and years and years, and my team has been doing that we practice within our parent company, we try and practice at home is being thoughtful and adaptable.
If I am working with quieter, more introverted people who might be make decisions through a feelings filter, then I am going to slow way down. I am going to be intentional about asking question, I am probably going to use more feelings language and I am really going to take time to connect as oppose to like you and I, Benji, we’re going to go out and we’re going to throw ideas back and forth and we’ll probably going to get a little loud.
We are going to be action oriented or, we’re going to have a discussion and we’re going to talk to think and we’re going to go really fast and then we’ll probably go like chop some trees down with our bare hands. So, it’s really about understanding the situation that you are walking into and then being intentional about adapting to be more effective, whether it’s how you communicate or how you build relationships.
One of the things that we challenge people to do — and a lot of our workshops and a lot of our coaching — is to imagine that you’re going home and I want you to pause with your hand on the door. We want you to think about the people on the other side of that door that you care about most. What’s one choice you can make when you walk through that door that’s going to help them stand a little bit taller versus smaller? That’s going to help that candle shine a little bit brighter, that’s going to help them get a little bit closer to their potential all based on a small choice you could make?
People can really easily grasp this idea that, “Hey, I can’t walk in and rant and rave with my family because that is not going to work” or “Maybe I need to listen a little more. Maybe I need to spend some quality time with my kids,” or “Maybe I really need to ask a couple more questions and give my partner a chance to think.” So it’s this ongoing practice at work and at home about being thoughtful, about other people and being intentional about how we adapt.
Benji Block: You hit on something that I thought was a key point in the book, which is the power of a pause. You had a quote from Guy Clumpner, he is the president of Holt Development Services and he put it like this, He said, “Leadership is about what you do before you do what you do that matters,” which I thought was great.
Thomas Epperson: Another mouthful.
Benji Block: Another mouthful but learning that pause, I mean that will change your life and your leadership and when you are talking about values based leadership, that does seem to be a key point to actually get you to live out those values, right?
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, so we teach people all about using their own pause button and pausing does not mean stopping. It does not mean not taking action but it really means taking a beat, taking long enough to choose. So many of our choices in life are unconscious, you know? Imagine leaving your house in the morning, hoping in your car driving to work and then pulling in the parking lot and then realizing, “Oh, I don’t know how I got here” and yet, we were able to do that on autopilot.
Our brains are fantastic about making most of our decisions unconscious. Now unfortunately, it applies to driving and it applies to leadership although, I don’t know which one is more dangerous. So by pausing all we’re doing is trying to make that unconscious choice a little more conscious and in the moment to align it with both the impact we want to have and the moment as well as that impact over time.
So, Benji, in this conversation maybe I want to get to know you better and so before we hop online, I am going to pause and think about, “I probably need to ask Benji some questions and then I’d probably need to listen to his answers,” you know? Or I might say, “You know what? In this conversation I am going to try and inspire Benji and so I am going to take a moment to notice what’s awesome about him and then I am going to tell him,” right?
It’s really just about taking a beat and choosing, that’s all our pause button helps us do. So to Guy’s point, it is what you do before you do that matters. Before we hop on this call, me being thoughtful about, “How do I want to show up for Benji? What’s going to be really effective for him and what he’s doing? How can I help him be more successful?”
Benji Block: When you think of core values in that pause moment, are there some specific questions or is it primarily focused on that pause button moment, on really thinking about impact and the person on the other side of like that conversation that you are having? How do you think about that stuff?
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, it’s both ends. It is very much like a polarity and in polarity thinking, you really want to consider sort of this right versus right scenario, so it is right for me to act on my values but it is also right for me to honor your values and what I am trying to do is both ends. I am trying to find the sweet spot between those two things and sometimes, it doesn’t work. Sometimes I am going to have to stay firmly rooted in my values and make a really hard choice regardless of these consequences.
Other times, I am going to try and be myself, be authentic but be authentic with skill and it is the difference between honestly and brutal honesty. I want to be honest with you, I want to give you maybe some tough feedback, yet I don’t have to be cruel about it. I don’t have to be disrespectful about it. I don’t have to light you on fire about it. I want to be effective and so I want to act on my value and be true to who I am and yet, also consider you in that equation.
When you do that, it makes you so much more effective but it is not as simple as just be who you are, you know? No, it’s be who you are with skill, be authentic with skill.
Benji Block: I like that. Okay, so we have touched on awareness, we touched a little bit on reflection here and relationships. What is one of the five maybe would you want to highlight a bit more, what any of them that really jumped out to you that you love to focus on?
Thomas Epperson: That’s a great question. You know, we talked about awareness and it’s so crucial that we understand ourselves pretty deeply and when we look in that mirror, sometimes we are going to see things about ourselves that we love and sometimes we’re going to see stuff about ourselves that we don’t love. Sometimes it can be a painful experience in going through that kind of feedback and raising our awareness but it is so crucial to our leadership effectiveness.
Quite frankly, it is so crucial to our effectiveness in life and if we can couple that, that awareness with our ability to develop relationships and really consider others and consider what they need from us and then combine that with taking action and conscious choices, that should help us to ultimately build the kind of skills and adaptability that allows us to be influential and effective with others but it takes a lot of practice.
It takes time and intention, it takes getting it wrong, it takes getting through a really awkward and mechanical stage but if we do so and we’re committed, you are so much more effective with other people in a leadership role. I can’t even describe what those results are and imagine if you had a family full of people doing the same thing or you had an organization full of people doing the same thing, imagine the difference that it would make.
Benji Block: The five practices of values-based leadership, I mean it’s literally transformed hundreds of organizations. You are bringing up families as well, obviously it can be applied across the board. I wonder if you have one or two examples, stories that are kind of go-to’s for you where you are going, “Man, look at once this was applied, the transformation that took place.”
Thomas Epperson: I mean I always have to start with myself because again, I’ve had to be really intentional about working on my rough edges and working on where I’ve been ineffective over time. You know, I’ve hurt people in the past because I wasn’t aware. I’ve made mistakes in the past because I wasn’t aware. I’ve made decisions that were courageous in the past either because I didn’t have the courage that I needed to act on my values in the moment or because I wasn’t aware of the opportunity or that I missed it or that I was scared.
For me, values-based leadership and applying these practices has helped me to be much clear about who I am and much clear about what it takes to be effective and much clear about the impact that I want to have. I really walk this earth to be a great dad, to be a great husband and to lead and develop people and these practices have helped me do all three.
We’ve been working with other organizations and executives and individuals and families for a long time now and so we have seen families get better at being honest with one another using these practices, on having really hard conversations, being kind of courageous in the moment, you know, and maybe we’re able to say hard things or set really clear boundaries that has helped us as a family become more effective.
In organizational settings, oftentimes the big challenge is we’re misaligned and so, these practices help us get on the same page because people get really clear about what it takes to lead and influence effectively. At the same time, in organizations often times we won’t make the hard call, you know? It feels like it’s going to cost us too much to hold somebody accountable or to fire that high performer who makes us a lot of money and yet is a terrible person and really brings their team down.
I’ve seen organizations make those hard choices, not allow themselves to be held hostage by low performers or ineffective people or just jerks and when they do that, they never regret the decision. I haven’t ever seen somebody act on these practices consistently over time and get better at them and then say, “You know what’s terrible? Leadership, I should just give it up.” Everybody who does it makes progress in large ways and small and they never say, “It wasn’t worth it.”
Benji Block: When readers are done with this book, is there a main feeling you hope they have, a main takeaway that you want them to walk away with?
Thomas Epperson: I really want readers to recognize the opportunity and the responsibility that they have to make a positive impact in the lives of others and the only way we can do that is by starting with ourselves and doing all the hard work and managing that eight pounds on our shoulders as Charlie Luck likes to say and managing that monster and then really focusing on how we can light other people up and to really look for that opportunity because it’s all around.
When we do that, when we work on ourselves as people that helps us be better leaders and better leaders lead to better communities and better organizations and better families. It boils down to InnerWill’s mission of developing people, braver leaders and a wiser world through the practice of values-based leadership. That’s my hope for the readers of this book, that they see that both the opportunity and the responsibility and then they do something about it.
Benji Block: Love it. I love it. There is five, I will sum it up again: awareness, potential, relationships, action, reflection. The book again is called, InnerWill, and we would love for everyone to go pick it up on Amazon. Let me hit on a couple of things as we’re wrapping up here. First would be tell us a bit about the InnerWill Leadership Institute and the work you guys are doing there.
Thomas Epperson: Yeah, so InnerWill was started by Luck Companies, so Luck Companies is a 100-year-old family-held business. It is the largest aggregate producer in the United States currently and InnerWill was started as a way of taking all of these leadership and culture and values work that we’ve been doing inside the company for years and taking it out in the world as a way of making an impact.
InnerWill is a 501 (c) (3), so basically our model is to work with for-profit companies and the families that support them, take the money that we make there to cover our costs and then that allows us to go do reduced rate work for non-profits and some free work for organizations like school systems, YMCAs, Goodwills, that sort of thing.
Benji Block: Nice.
Thomas Epperson: My job basically is to break even and go have an impact.
Benji Block: I love that. Where can people check out more information on InnerWill Leadership Institute and then where can people stay connected to you and the work that you are doing?
Thomas Epperson: You can find us at innerwill.org, so innerwill.org. You can also find more about our parent company, Luck Companies at luckcompanies.com and you can find me on InnerWill’s website, if you want to drop me a line or send me a note.
Benji Block: Fantastic. Dr. Thomas Epperson, thank you so much for being here and sharing your insights and your wisdom from the new book with our audience and being on Author Hour today.
Thomas Epperson: Awesome. Benji, I really, really appreciate it. Thanks for all the questions, thanks for being thoughtful, thanks for challenging a little bit. I really appreciate it.
Benji Block: Absolutely, thanks.