Are all values created equal?

Values and Purpose. Two words that regularly find their way into our business conversations, bringing with them the promise of something good. More engagement. More impact. More results. They are deeply connected to authentic leadership. They prompt us to ask the questions: What are your values? Are you living them out? What’s your personal purpose? Does your organisation have a purpose? Does it chime with you?

There’s no doubt, values and purpose are two powerful tools for any leader and any organisation. Exploring values together can cut through layers of guardedness in a team and make us all feel human together. We can enter into dialogue virtually instantly around what feels most important to us, and somehow exploring our values together makes us sit up and listen to one other. There’s a kind of presence that enters the room at these moments, as if we’re talking about something meaningful that dissolves our differences, even if our values are different. Values connect us.

Similarly with purpose. Purpose inspires, it energises. It makes us believe that what we do matters. Without it, we’re cogs in the organisational wheel, stamping out our part of the assembly line and hoping to find meaning in the other areas of our lives outside of work, like the gym, our family, our community. With purpose, we can link up what’s important to us with what we do every day. There’s a beautiful through-line between our values, our sense of our purpose and our organisation’s purpose that brings out the best authentic leader in all of us.

As leaders, our values shape our preferences and our behaviours, what we pay attention to and prioritise, and therefore the decisions we make. Values tend to be ordered into a hierarchy of importance, and if we don’t know this hierarchy for ourselves, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything is equally important. Once we clarify the fingerprint of our values, we cultivate a deep understanding of what is deserving of our time, attention and energy, which helps us to focus. When we behave in ways that correspond with our values, we experience increased energy, happiness, wellbeing, and resilience. Conversely, when we’re unaware what matters most to us we might behave in ways that contradict ourvalues, and this creates an internal sense of unease, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Leaders who are grounded in and living what’s most important to them have greater self-awareness and clarity, and therefore impact and influence in the different contexts in which they lead.

As such, a lot of good things come from values. However, it’s worth looking a little deeper at what we mean by values. Are all values created equal? Apparently not. At the most basic level, we value different things – and that’s okay. It’s interesting and helpful to take a step back to understand others’ perspectives, even if or especially if you think their values don’t align with yours. After all, their perspectives make sense to them, and we tend to make decisions based on what makes the most sense to us at the time, however ‘wrong’ that may appear to others.

A case point: two very current examples. Russia and the Ukraine? And what about Iran’s moral police? It can’t be denied that Russia, and Putin in particular, has very strong values; even a very strong sense of purpose, one might argue, a north star that he’s getting his country to march towards. Equally, Iran has very strong values around morality and dress code. We can’t argue that these are not very strong and clear values meted out with what, to observers, are shocking results.

Where do we draw the line between some values and others?

I think it lies in the positive impact we create for the greater good beyond ourselves. The concept of values is agnostic; it’s their effect that counts. Values that create divisiveness and that demand that you be like me (or lose your life) are inferior to values that act in the interests of what’s good for the greatest number of people. Universal values that honour the human spirit and all of life help to align us and bring cooperation, harmony and reduce suffering. Clinging blindly to ‘my view of the world’, however sincerely values-driven, is a surefire way to cause more suffering, to others if not to ourselves. 

If we’re all going to move forward and create a positive future for ourselves, it helps to be humble, open, and curious about what’s important to others, less attached to our values as fixed truths, and to move forward in a direction that emphasizes our commonality rather than our differences. 

And that, in itself, is a value. I wonder how others see it?

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