“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own Moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.” Michelle Obama
“There are those who would draw a sharp line between power politics and a principled foreign policy based on values. This polarized view – you are either a realist or devoted to norms and values – may be just fine in academic debate, but it is a disaster for American foreign policy.” Condoleezza Rice
When I was head of Human Resources for a large tech company, I tried to fire a leader for calling a woman a cunt in a heated discussion. I was over-ruled by the executive committee. They argued that because the man used the derogatory term in an emotional outburst his revolting insult didn’t reflect who he was – so this “one” offense should be excused. He was also one of the top salespeople in the company. I still thought he should have been fired, but I’m afraid the profit objective trumped the civility value.
I feel lucky to have had a father who role modelled the importance of values in our family. He always exemplified the values of honesty, humility, and integrity. He started out his career as a welder on an assembly line in Detroit. Through hard work and being frugal, he saved enough money to buy a house and own a gas station/car dealership. When auto sales slumped in the 60’s, he became an aluminum extrusions salesperson. As far as I know, he never lied to his customers or misrepresented his products. He always listened intently to what people wanted and tried to satisfy their requests. The messages I constantly received from both of my parents were: “Do what you say,” “Tell the truth,” and “Don’t you fool your pants.” The last could be translated as don’t think you are bigger than you are. In esoteric terms, that means notice when your imagination runs wild and let go of delusions. A friend of mine would say, “Quit inhaling your own PR.”
These were all solid messages I try (although imperfectly) to live by and instill in my kids and grand-kids: Do what you say (integrity), tell the truth (honesty), and don’t you fool your pants (humility). I can’t think of three better imperatives.
To be clear, there were other messages I heard in my family that I have tried to erase from the mental tapes playing in my head that reflect intolerance, prejudice, and obedience. In my family, if you broke the rules you were put in the “boot and shoe business,” a polite euphemism for a belt on the bare butt. “Permissive” parenting was seen as weak. I regretfully admit that in my early years as a parent I resorted to one spanking. Hopefully, as I grew older and wiser, I used reason and choice to influence behavior instead of using force to demand obedience.
For me, decision making – indeed life – is more about values than options. Instead of obsessing about getting all A’s, I asked my kids, “What are you learning?” “Are you working hard?” “Are you having fun?” “How are you feeling about your Community of friends?” Instead of focusing narrowly on a single objective ( a perfect report card), I inquired about the values of learning, fun, hard work, friends, and community.
As an executive coach, I encourage my clients to define what values they aspire to model as leaders. I ask them how they would like their colleagues to describe the values they see them exemplify, i.e. what is their personal brand? One executive responded with these four values: credibility, respect, authenticity, and growth (for self and others). Another said: principled, practical, trustworthy, and technical. If someone were to ask me that question, I would say: honesty, integrity, compassion, and responsiveness. You can see that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. My dad would have said honesty and integrity, but would have probably added reliability and responsibility. He was all about duty, decency, and discipline. .
As a culture change consultant, I recommend that organizations define a set of core values that reflect the aspirations of people at all levels. Values cannot be imposed from the top; and words on the wall that are conjured up in board rooms without input from employees are just that – words on the wall with no relevance or meaning. Values are the anchors for decision making and the guidelines for strategy. In strategic planning, I believe the first step is to articulate the vision and the second step is to define the values. By answering first the questions “Why?” (vision) and “How?” (values), an organization is far more likely to succeed in accomplishing “What” they are trying to do.
These days, I’m afraid that most politicians and their constituents are promoting privatized objectives at the expense of common values. It seems to me that we are not paying sufficient attention to the wisdom of the two powerful women I quoted at the beginning of this post. Michelle Obama implores us to hold fast to our values and beliefs and to follow our own moral compass. Condoleezza Rice warns us that drawing a line between values and power politics is a formula for disaster. Even though each represents a different political party, both emphasize that values matter. Oh, if only more women were in charge.
The questions are 1) what are our most important values?, 2) how much of our time and energy is devoted to those values, and 3) when will living our values become our most important objectives?
Values can be defined in four broad buckets: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Physical values encompass financial wealth, travel, health, and living conditions. Emotional values relate to respect, trust, relationship, and inclusion. Examples of intellectual values include innovation, problem solving, analysis, and learning. Spiritual values are usually concerned with community, connection, joy, and meaning. It seems to me that physical and intellectual values are consuming most of our time and energy these days at the expense of emotional and spiritual values. Somehow, we need to find a way to create a better moral compass to focus our energies.
What I expect of myself is to do my best to build community, deepen connections, and elevate communications. In the polarized and divided state in which we live, building community becomes more and more necessary. With the ubiquitous nature of the internet and smart phones, connecting deeply with people has become more and more challenging. We have fallen into the habits of scanning and skimming instead of reasoning and relating. And our political walls and preferred news sources have shut down civil debate. We are quickly morphing into warring tribes. Community, connection, and community are values that matter to me.
In his book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, Adam Gopnik implores us to live the liberal values of kindness, sympathy, sanity, justice, equality, freedom, compassion, and public-mindedness. He advises us to commit to perpetual reform instead of giving into periodic revolutions. Gopnik, an American author and essayist, is best known as a staff writer for the New Yorker. I loved his brilliant descriptions of this moral adventure in which we are currently participating – willingly or not.
My hope is that we can find our way back to kindness and community. We will need well-defined values to guide our way. And we will need to constantly challenge ourselves to put sacred values above privatized objectives. We could all learn from my Dad’s wisdom: Do what you say, tell the truth, and don’t you fool your pants. May it be so.