On Leadership, Core Values and Adhering to Principles

Core Values

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.

They include:

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

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!


Core Values Cards

Core Values Cards

Determine Your Team’s Core Values


What’s Next?

“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.

Real-World Impact

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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Dr. Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | BlogWeb

Image Sources: laceymgardner.files.wordpress.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. John Smith on January 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Reblogged this on THE STRATEGIC LEARNER and commented:
    I’ve shared this in other places, but it’s worth sharing here. The misalignment between values and behavior at the individual, group, and organizational level creates much of what is wrong with the workplace these days.

    This article does a nice job of briefly noting the problems and some solutions.

  2. ENNA A. BACHELOR on January 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  3. Chris Saint Cyr on January 16, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Too often organizations put together a committee to develop the core guiding principals. They write down some nice, feel-good words, post them on the wall near the mission statement and pat themselves on the back. NO BODY can quote what the principals are in a few weeks and worse, NO BODY lives by them. One of the most effective tools I use when mentoring junior leaders are core values. When I point out something they did wrong, they want to know where in the rules it says they cannot do that. Instead I point out how their behavior violated a guiding principal and objections evaporate. I have also worked for organizations and tried to live up to the documented values to learn the reason friction existed is those were not the REAL values of the leaders of the organization. Thats when one has to make the tough decision to stay and continue fighting to make the place better and align with the principals or find a place that has integrity and lives by its stated principals.

    • Gary R Coulton on January 17, 2014 at 9:58 am

      It is intriguing how research shows the correlation between supervisor behaviour and stress-related presenteeism. In particular negative behaviour causes the largest adverse effects. Presenteeism is perhaps the biggest cause for loss of productivity. So, even for those profit-driven people it makes sense to discover and practice every day core values supporting followers. It is harder work not to!

      • Chris Saint Cyr on January 19, 2014 at 8:58 pm


        Thanks for taking time to read my work and comment on it. I have actually seen any research on the topic. I have read several books that discuss the issue and taken classes all arguing the importance of having mission statements and guiding principals and following them. I have also made observations based on experiences as I try to reconcile what I have learned from classes and books with behaviors I have seen in work places; mine and others. I would be interested in reading any papers you have completed or read providing scientific proof to the theory. FYI, when ever I read papers I try to remember that once in the past the best scientist of the time could proof the world was flat and the Earth was the center of the universe!

        Thanks again for your feed back. If I can figure out how to post to the comments section would object to my posting your’s there?


  4. Larry Walker on January 17, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Excellent article Gary. You have done a very good job of providing evidence for why core values are central to any organization. In our work at The AWL Group with the Action Wheel, we most frequently find that the root cause of misalignments within organizations has to do with values where organizations have lost touch with what is truly important to them.

  5. ramakrishnan6002 on January 17, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

  6. Gary Coulton on January 19, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Thank you for all of your positive responses.