If there is one weather forecast that spells trouble, it’s the one indicating a “wintry mix” is on the way. It typically means a mixture of sleet and freezing rain. It often results in coating everything in its path with ice … slowing things down, causing serious traffic hazards, treacherous walking conditions and the risk of falling tree limbs and downed power lines. You could say it has quite a negative systemic impact. It is a hazardous mix!

Not all mixtures are bad.

For instance, cooking and baking require a mixture of ingredients. The success of a chef or baker’s work depends on the nature of the mix. Creative thinking, on a work team, comes from a diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences. Success, on a sports team, comes in the mix of gifted talents coming together. Business success often is achieved through a mixture of services and products. A useful tool box is filled with a mix of very different kinds of tools. Life itself is enriched through a mixture of different kinds of experiences and relationships. Mixtures aren’t only a good thing … most often they are a critical ingredient.

There is one combination, however, that is as lethal as a wintry mix. That is a leader’s use of “mixed messages” when it comes to core values. Similar to the results of a wintry mix, things can look incredible on the surface. An ice-covered scene can be impressive in its beauty. So can a well-worded list of core values on the website or wall of any organization.

Once you step into it, however, things can quickly get hazardous!

A leader can fall into the trap of “mixed messages” for a number of reasons. It could result from a basic lack of cognitive awareness or a full understanding of the organization’s core values. It could be a lack of personal or emotional commitment that prohibits the leader from genuinely embracing the core values. Maybe it’s the stated core values, themselves, that leave the leader uninspired to inspire others by them. There are a number of possibilities that can cause the onslaught of a leader’s wintry mix of messages.

It is important to understand that while mixed messages can create havoc, they are not the real problem. The real problem can always be traced to a leader’s relationship with their own personal core values, the stated core values of the organization they lead … or the intersection of both. Mixed messages are the result of something and not the driver.

Mixed messages can, however, drive significant damage.

Just like a wintry-mix, mixed messages can cause slippery conditions. It is hard, if not impossible, for employees to take a stand for core values that are slippery. While the values might look good on the web or a lobby wall, it becomes very difficult to take-hold or maintain your footing. At best it causes confusion and ultimately lack of alignment and engagement.

Delivering mixed messages is very different than delivering difficult messages. Great leaders face difficult decisions head-on. Personal and organizational core values don’t prevent a leader from making difficult decisions … they equip them to do so. In fact, those difficult decisions are best communicated through an intentional connection to the organization’s core values. This connection, itself, requires a leader to align their behavior and decisions precisely with those core values.

The only mixture in a message should be with the ingredients of the core values themselves.

Through the years, it seems we have evolved into a dangerous pattern of putting a “spin” on many messages. The last time I checked, “spin” creates a mixture of most anything … every time! A leader’s message and behavior must be delivered directly from their core. Otherwise, any message is likely to be an intentional or unintentional mixed mess.

The damage caused by mixed messages should be evidence enough for any leader to become a star pupil when it comes to knowing their own personal and organizational core values. This is especially true when a leader comes to understand that the greatest damage caused by mixed messages ultimately is very personal … their own credibility.

On the other hand, the opposite is also true. For within the delivery of each consistent message, intentionally aligned to the core, are the seeds of any leader’s meaningful legacy.

Today’s post is the featured article from the December 2013 issue of The Front Porch Newsletter. If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.