On our journeys through life, we occasionally encounter pivotal moments that alter our paths. My life changed when my mentor, Bob McDonald, challenged me to create a list of my values. This turned out to be one of the most difficult and eye-opening exercises I have ever had to complete.
Bob is a student of leadership and firmly believes decision-makers should be guided by a personal set of values. When a leader is driven by clear values, hard decisions become easy and the leader’s influence is broadened. Bob’s method for helping people discover their key values is clear and simple, though certainly not easy:
- REFLECT: The exercise starts with reflection. It’s important to think through what you believe and why. I found it helpful to not list everything I believe – that seemed too daunting a task. Instead, I tried to think about the big things I believe in by reviewing the tough decisions I had made in my life and the driving reasons for my choices. This part of the exercise takes time. Some people find it helpful to go on a retreat to stimulate their thoughts. I found single malt scotch was as effective and a less expensive approach.
- WRITE: It’s important to distill your thoughts in writing. A format that I found helpful is to answer the question, “What do I believe?” And then follow it with a sentence or two explaining how you came to that belief. Articulating how you formed the belief helps ensure its authenticity. It also helps you think about what you’re writing on a deeper level. I recommend trying to articulate six to twelve value statements. Any less and the exercise becomes trivial – any more and the list risks being unhelpful as a guide. Keeping the list to a reasonable number helps you differentiate your most important values.
- SHARE: This may be the hardest step. Once you have your list of values, start to share it with people you work with and who work for you. Get feedback from them on whether the articulation is easy to understand. Listen to their reactions and reflect on whether the statements need modification. This step is important to build your confidence in what you’ve written. Don’t hesitate to edit if it improves clarity or truthfulness. You need to believe strongly in what you’ve written.
- NOW WALK THE TALK: For the list of values to make a difference, it’s important that you be held accountable for walking the talk. Ask the people you share the document with to call out any time you act in a manner inconsistent with your values. And, of course, when you get that feedback modify your behavior accordingly. If you find you are frequently violating a key value, revisit the list. Maybe what you wrote is a strong hope or a statement of what you think you believe, but not really a guiding personal value.
Sharing a list of my values with people was a scary proposition and it took some courage to follow through. But the reaction I received was very rewarding. Of course, not everybody agreed with my values, and that was okay. Because sometimes others feel like they better understand who you are and what you stand for.
Now whenever I speak and am asked for my biography I share a two-page document with my bio on one side and my values on the other. Inevitably in the one-on-one Q&A which always follows a talk, I get as many questions on my values as I do my talk.
In my experience, authoring and sharing my personal values document has made, and continues to make, a powerful impact on my own life journey. I often review my values to make sure I’m walking the talk. I don’t always succeed, but whenever I fail I try to figure out why and learn from the experience. And when I’m faced with a challenging decision, I review my list to find guidance on which choice will be most consistent with my values.
I encourage you to try the process and see if it will help you make a greater impact in your life journey.
You can read my detailed values document “12 Things I Believe” here. I’ve also included an abbreviated list below, but I recommend downloading the complete list to more fully understand the exercise. These are my values, you don’t have to agree with them but I hope they inspire you to consider your own values.
12 THINGS I BELIEVE
- Superior insight is the key to winning in business
- Writing improves thinking
- Integrity and trust are earned by one’s behavior, not words
- Success is best measured by sustained performance
- Teaching somebody to fish is the greatest gift you can give
- Truth has boundaries
- There are some choices that are always wrong regardless of circumstances
- People begin each day with the hope of contributing value and being valued
- It is always better to inspire than inform
- Agreeing to disagree is a valid outcome
- When you plan to win, and prepare to win, then you have a right to expect to win
- Service above self is true leadership