Visible Values

“Coach Bryant had an idea about how a man should act, and if you watched him, you could figure it out.”

Howell Raines described legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant that way. The quote illustrates something important about values. What you do shows your values to the world.

Most of us, most of the time, are sure that the way we act reflects our values. We’re often wrong. Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman put that in a sentence: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

You’re easy to fool because you cut yourself slack. You evaluate your actions based on your intentions. But other people don’t see your intentions. They only see what you do and hear what you say. If you want to make sure that the values you act out match the values you believe, you must do some work.

Clarify Your Values

The first step in getting your values and your behavior to match up is to define your values. Identify your most important values and write them down. Writing forces you to be specific. Here are two ways to clarify your values.

  • Write the eulogy you hope someone would deliver at your funeral or memorial service. What would you want them to say?
  • Make a list of your favorite quotes about leadership and life. Then write a statement that summarizes them all.

Those are informal exercises you can do by yourself. There are also formal values clarification exercises.

If you have a leadership coach, he or she may have an instrument or exercise they prefer. Most of the formal methods begin with values sorting. In some, you choose between pairs of words representing values. In others or where you put a list of values in priority order.

How Do You Act?

Once you’ve defined your values, it’s time to test how well your actions and values match up. Just like Coach Bryant, you want people to tell what you believe by watching how you act.

Get out your calendar and your checkbook. What do they say is important to you?

What are you known for? If someone who doesn’t know you asks someone who does about you, what will they say?

I’ve done an exercise like this about every two years for the last 25 years. If your experience is like mine, your values and behaviors won’t match up nearly as well as you think they do.

My values include doing quality work but also spending time with family. But every values clarification exercise shows that I act like work is way more important.

That’s easy to see with a calendar review. The time for work and the time for family are out of balance. And we value things by giving them time.

Doing Better

A values clarification exercise should make you uncomfortable. But once you understand the gap between how you act and how you want to act, you can do something about it.

Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick one thing you want to work on. Decide how you will assess it. Make that assessment part of your life.


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