I Used To Think Values Were Bull. Here’s Why I’ve Changed My Mind

I used to think values were full of bull. 

Maybe I’d seen one too many shiny, plaque-ey corporate value statements in the polished receptions of organisations. They would loudly espouse “collaboration” or “integrity”, when no one was practicing these values in the corridors or meeting rooms of said corporate. 

I heard a lot of chatter about the power of defining your values and leading by them. If I’m honest, I wondered if it was just that. Chatter. 

But then I decided to go through the exercise of defining my own values. After all, it wouldn’t do for a leadership coach not to. And I certainly couldn’t criticise a concept if I didn’t get my hands dirty with all this values lark first.  

Turns out, it was harder than I thought. This was the first indication that if you do it properly, there’s something to this values thing after all. 

These days, I’ve changed my mind about the value of defining and then leading by your values. Here’s why:

Leading can be tough. There will be times when you have to make tough choices. Values help you when you’re faced with hard decisions. They’re your compass. And we all need guidance when we’re navigating rough weather. Leading by your values helps you make better decisions. They anchor you to who you are, what you will do, and how you want to show up in this world. 

But what I didn’t realise until recently, is they help you during the good times too. Since my book Beyond Burnout has become successful, practicing my values around mental and physical wellness and ‘whānau first’ have stopped me from overcommitting.  They’ve reduced the cognitive load when it comes to choices about my calendar, ensuring I have space for exercise, rest, and whānau.  I treat these as the most important things in my diary. Because they are.  

Here’s one way you can get started with your own values journey: 

First, define them.

This takes deep contemplation. It’s not a flippant affair. It was hard for me to get clear on the values that were the most important to me. It helps if you have a process to do this. This one, which is featured in my emerging leader programme, The Leader’s Map,  is useful and is what I used. You want to end up with no more than 5-6 values. 

Next, get clear on what your values look like in action.

A value is a verb. So you have ‘courage’ as one of your values? What exactly does that look like? What observable behaviour will we see if you’re practicing this value? Write that down. Get really specific.  

Then, prioritise them.

This is where it gets teeth gnashingly difficult. But it’s also one of the most important steps you will take if you really want to live by your values. Why? Because there will come a time when you have to choose between two; when two of your values conflict. Usually that happens when you’re facing the toughest leadership challenge of your life. 

Here is a much smaller example, but it illustrates the point: I have compassion (including self-compassion) as one of my values and persistence as another. When I was writing my book Beyond Burnout, there were days when I could hardly drag myself to my computer and when I did, everything I typed was shit. Compassion rates higher than persistence for me. On those days, practicing self-compassion and taking a break was the right thing to do – not crawling over broken glass for another 2 hours. 

Which is your most important value? Which will you hold sacred over the others? When push comes to shove, which value means the most to you? Prioritise your 5-6 values and thank me later. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, practice them – daily.

Hold yourself to account on these values. Your first step is just like the corporate I started this blog post with – make them visible to yourself (although hopefully you’ll do better than them at going beyond just making them visible!). A simple, practical way to do this is a small thing, but it’s been one of the most powerful in my values journey: I printed them off and stuck them above my mirror in my wardrobe. Seeing them every day is a reminder of who I want to be. The best leaders will ask themselves regularly, “Did I try my best to live my values today? Where am I doing well and where am I falling short when it comes to leading by my values? What’s getting in the way if I’m falling short of where I want to be?”. You could do this by journaling or talking them through with a trusted ‘challenging cheerleader’.

Uncomfortable? Yes. But it’s small daily habits of living your values that make a difference to the leader you will become over time. 

Perhaps my biggest epiphany when it comes to values has been this:

Values are quiet. They don’t shout from the rooftops. There’s no fanfare, no shiny plaques. Like a good brew of tea, they seep into a leader’s practice.  The best leaders I know do their values, rather than talking about them. And that’s where the magic lies. 

Related: Ditch the Bad Habits: 4 Stages of Awareness To Be a Better Leader