One of the first things I tend to do when working with new clients is to have them clarify their values. What things are most important to you? What values best define or describe who you are and what you stand for? What inspires you, both in yourself and in others? Write them down and keep them close by, where you can see them or refer to them easily.
Then, as you go through your day, ask yourself, “How often do I refer to these core values when making decisions?” If the answer is “not very often,” then you, like many of us, have work to do. If your values aren’t guiding your decision-making, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage.
“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” – Roy E. Disney
You see, when your decisions and actions are disconnected from your core values, you tend to withhold your best, experience a general lack of inspiration for taking action, and may even feel stressed as you go through the day. It’s the difference between being the lighthouse, shining your light despite the darkness, and being a weathervane, simply going in whichever direction the wind is blowing.
I know, easy to say! I get it. In fact, I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone in the past. It’s not easy to live up to the values you profess. But then again, who said it was supposed to be?
“Nothing is given to man on earth – struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible – the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.”
– Andrew Bernstein
There are few things that will take us off track quicker than living out of alignment with our values. In fact, I don’t think there is anything more harmful to a leader than to realize that they’ve built their career on a set of values that mean nothing to them. It’s why we feel that internal uneasiness as we go through the day. And then we get home and ask ourselves questions like, “Is this really all there is?” or “Why do I feel so disconnected and frustrated?”
Like I said, I get it. I was there myself. In fact, the discomfort I felt from continuing to work in an organization where I clearly wasn’t living my core values finally got the best of me. At age 46, I turned my life upside down and started on a journey to become the best version of myself. And I’m thrilled to say that more than 10 years later, I’m not only working in a profession where I get to live my values every single day, I’m also experiencing more purpose, meaning, and fulfillment than I’ve ever felt in my life. Easy? Not at all. Worth it? Absolutely!
“Our problem is not to find better values but to be faithful to those we profess.” – John W. Gardner
Commitment to your individual values offers a surefire way for you to embrace more opportunities, enhance personal initiative, and create more clarity around the type of leader you aspire to become. Research has shown a direct correlation between dedication to values and the commitment to doing exceptional work. You may put your intellect into your work, but you won’t put your heart and soul into it without a clear connection to your values. And in fact, the research even supports the notion that personal values are more important than adherence to shared or organizational values. Why? Because it’s our compass, our guide to how we wish to be in the world.
Here’s an exercise I encourage you to do. It will help you identify where you’re doing well, and where you still need to focus attention. First, write down a list of words that you hold as values. Write as many as you can. Think of who you are when no one is looking; think of your highest aspirations.
“Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Then, go through the list and ask, “What are the five most important values on this list for me; the ones I would not compromise or let go of?” Read them aloud and ask yourself if they ring true. Are they a true representation of who you are? If not, find other words that are closer.
Now, here’s the challenging part. On a sheet of paper, write these five words down the left side, and across the top of the page write the days of the week. At the end of each day, perform a self-assessment. How well did I live up to each of these values today? Make notes and hold yourself accountable. Ask if you’re satisfied with your results, and where you could have done better. Then commit to doing better. This is where the hard work lies. We have to bridge the gap between knowing something and doing something. After time, these values will become more ingrained in you, and they’ll serve the purpose you intended – helping you to become the best version of yourself.