Everyone knows we should have core values, yet the litany of disasters where companies and people failed to live up to their own core values grows yearly. Public cynicism is understandable given so many organisations claim laudable core values but their behaviour screams “we don’t care about them.”
Don’t get me wrong: Profit is fine, but don’t hide behind a mission that is fake.
Culture and Core Values
The culture/core values relationship is at the centre of everything. Complex reasons lie behind core value misalignments.
1) Fundamental misunderstanding of the worth of core values.
Steve Jobs understood the need to identify, understand and live by core values. The two phases of Apple’s outstanding success under his leadership happened when they aligned their core values and actions.
2) Failure to exercise and embed core values in everything we do.
The complex dynamics of a disconnect between Enron’s culture and espoused core values was described elegantly by David Burkus in his 2011 paper in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership.
Core Values and Principles Must be Non‑negotiable
Core values are expressions of who we are, why we do what we do, and are inherently non-negotiable. That’s not to say they can’t mature over time. They should belong to you and not be influenced by someone else’s opinion of moral or ethical norms.
“Leaders honor their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.” ~Colin Powell
Getting to grips with our real core values is challenging and requires we understand ourselves at a fundamentally honest level. Daniel Goleman in “Focus – the hidden driver of excellence” cites research indicating self-awareness as a crucial characteristic of successful leaders of equally self-aware organisations.
Sadly we usually start by ruminating on words claiming the hypothetical moral high ground; listing characteristics of “worthy ethical people or organisations”. Beware, this list is biassed by current mood, recent events, and personal history. Organisations generate bland mission statements describing values they believe will appeal to clients and staff. To aspire to Steve Job’s view of core values we must re-frame and re-invent this process to create a dynamic living tool capable of steering our decisions and actions meaningfully.
Even the worst despots have a core value, reprehensible though they may be to most people. Therefore, it is the principles and ethics that we hold to be truths which in turn asset in the creation of our core values.
“Principles are natural laws that are external to us and that ultimately control the consequences of our actions. Values are internal and subjective and represent that which we feel strongest about in guiding our behaviour.” ~Stephen Covey
The Physics of Core Strength
Dancers, athletes, and gymnasts depend on core strength to achieve excellence. In the video notice, no matter how extravagantly she moves her arms and legs her core remains steady. Core strength comes from deep muscles around the pelvis working semi-automatically to maintain balance and connection between our legs and upper body.
We all rely on our core strength to sit, stand and walk. When we ask our bodies to do something out of the ordinary our core muscles must work harder. This excessive demand can become uncomfortable. We may lose balance and fall over. Dancers and athletes enhance balance by training their core, allowing them to do more adventurous movements.
What we see is “effortless” performance.
They also refine conscious and unconscious sensing systems feeding back to support yet more adaptation to changing demands.
Consider your personal and organisational core values as a dancer might exercise their core strength; holding you true and level whilst you experiment and innovate. Start from the mindset of the novice by exercising a particular value, trust for example, be curious about your reaction to trusting.
How do others react to you trusting them? You might end up moderating your value to “smart trust.”
When values don’t fit, you sense the imbalance, an uncomfortable internal tension manifesting as feelings of hypocrisy or dishonesty. If you feel such sensations, rely on your senses and know this value can’t really be yours; it needs modifying or rejecting. As you assess each core value in turn, testing your response to exercising it, you create your authentic immutable list!
“OK, I have my list of core values, now what a I meant to do?”
You have in your hands the very thing Steve Jobs held so valuable, your core strength as a leader. More than that you have a practical tool for exercising and sensing the impact of your values and decisions as you become more adventurous and innovative.
You will also rely on your core values to absorb the inevitable hard knocks and develop personal and organisational resilience.
Do core values and principles make a difference?
- People function best when they have a purpose and feel in control.
- Organisations staffed by people who feel in command excel.
- When performing at their best athletes describe “being in the flow.”
They’ve so embedded their core strengths during training they perform unconsciously. Developing your core values by asking yourself, “is this decision or action aligned with my core values?” seems artificial at first, but with practice it becomes automatic.
Organisations reaching this level of insight thrive both in times of plenty and scarcity because they avoid wasting time on unnecessary internal tension; instead, they concentrate on what they do best.
For a list of the core values of 15 successful companies take a look at YFS Magazine.
Do you understand your awesome purpose? What are your non-negotiable core values and principles? Do you exercise your core values every day? Is your company’s culture fully aligned with your core values? What feedback systems do you have to test your core values? Are their alarms bells ringing indicating a breach of your core values?
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