There are probably an infinite number of values in our world. You could probably list at least 30 positive values in a minute or two if asked. People have LOTS of values. Most of us can agree that things like honesty, integrity, equity, etc, etc are good things — things we want to embrace and have as forces in our life. That’s why it’s important to clarify that narrowing your values isn’t about discarding any. It’s about identifying the ones that fuel you, the ones that are essential parts of your being, the things that make you tick.
By getting down to three or four of your most critical values, you can gain clarity from them and bring some balance to how you lead. These are the values that come up time and again in our lives. They motivate us to get out of bed, to stay late, and sometimes get us in trouble.
Your Core Values Aren’t Negotiable
Fun is a core value to me, but, having fun by itself isn’t something that most people would necessarily assign as a value, especially in the business world. There aren’t many businesses that you could probably think of like this. Southwest Airlines, is one of the few that I can cite as an example, but it’s a great example. One of their core operating principles is that they value fun. They’re almost known for that to some extent. You see it in their advertising, in how the flight crew announces safety instructions, there’s jokes, people dance, it’s almost like a little comedy show. This leads to a great story about why your core values aren’t up for negotiating.
One day there was a business traveler that was on one of Southwest’s flights and he’s a high value client with a million miles logged. He catches one of these funny, theatrical safety demonstrations and is upset about it. He writes a letter to the CEO to say, “Hey, safety’s a real serious issue. I don’t appreciate your humorous approach to such an important message.” And of course he throws in that he’s a million-mile traveller. And the CEO of Southwest Airlines writes the guy back, personally! And the letter is a single line that says “We’ll miss you.”
Wow! For Southwest, the value of being fun is worth the loss of a high-end business client. They recognize their actions define that fun, even if it’s not on the corporate mission statement somewhere, their actions define that fun is a big part of their value. The CEO stayed true to that value in his statement and was willing to suffer for it. Why? Because if they didn’t, if he apologized, said they would do better, and offered the guy a book of drink coupons, he would be betraying what they created, what they stand for. And if you know what you stand for is right then that is the only response.
But it’s important to note that the CEO couldn’t have written that note that he did, if they hadn’t already made the decision that fun WAS a core value. That’s why this story is so relevant to this discussion. You can’t set policy, you can’t make decisions from your best path of truth and passion, if you haven’t already done the work to identify what that value is that critically matters to you.
Knowing When to Temper Your Values
What makes you, you? Beyond any job or title. The person that people know you as, your partner, your friends, your co-workers, they probably know you by your values. My family and friends know me as the fun guy, the fair guy, the dude who’s always reading, constantly trying to learn. They know me to disappear with a book. Sometimes I like to pontificate the stuff that I learned and read and whatever. In that way, I can come off as almost a little bit of a know-it- all.
So there’s a balancing act to learn with your values. In one sense they are your fuel, they are the thing that pushes you to keep going even when you’re exhausted or overwhelmed. But they can also go to the extreme especially if we’re not cognizant of that. Reading is an awesome passion; continuous learning can be a helpful value in gaining more knowledge. But if you’re taking every moment to go read instead of being with your family, it can turn into a negative.
A value isn’t permission for you to not hold yourself accountable. You can’t get away with telling insulting jokes and hurting people because humor is one of your values. Taking honesty to the extreme and being destructive with your critiques doesn’t get a pass because you’re embracing your value of truth-telling. It’s not a betrayal of your values by buffering them.
Choosing Your Core Values
It’s important to recognize that values change. We cycle through some and keep others, depending on where we are in life. You can be honest and do some self-analysis to find out what values are showing up regularly in your life. You can ask your peers, your family and colleagues what they observe to get a better perspective on your values. And you can choose to move away from some values and to work on integrating ones that you’d prefer to have in your life. It’s a process.