Mistaking Ideals for Values

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It is quite a shock when you discover that you are not exactly who you thought you were. As a leadership coach, I see this phenomenon occur most frequently when I help clients to determine what their values are. I begin by asking clients what they consider to be their core values. Usually it doesn’t take long for us to get 5 or 6 values on the whiteboard. That’s the easy part. The more challenging part is proving it. Just as we would in a court of law, we’ll rely on witnesses, facts, and evidence to seek out the truth.

Before we begin though, we must define the terms. It’s important that we are clear about what we understand each value to mean. For example, the value of autonomy may be thought of as “doing whatever you want” by one person and “freedom to choose how to solve problems” by another. Realize that everyone attaches different connotations to values as well. One person might consider a value like “conservative” to have a negative connotation (unwilling to take risk), while someone else might see it in a more positive light (cautious).

Once we’ve created a list of values and agree on how to define them, I ask my clients how those values manifest themselves in their day-to-day lives. We’re looking for clear and specific actions the individual has taken in the past that support the values she claims to hold.

Here are a few good examples of how someone might complete this exercise:

Integrity -I make all of our clients aware of the referral agreements that our firm has in place. If any firm that we work with is not comfortable with this policy, we do not work with them.

– Last quarter I advised a customer against buying one of our machines because I knew that it would be grossly underused and it would be more cost effective to outsource the task they would use it for.

Generosity -I gave out bonuses last year, even though we did not reach our revenue target, because our low revenue number had more to do with the slow economy than my team’s performance.

– I pay my engineers 10% more than their peers in the industry.

– I donate 5% of the company’s profits to charities.

Community Engagement – I make a point of hiring individuals from impoverished neighborhoods in our city.
Skepticism -I do not use a financial advisor. I do my own research when deciding how to invest my retirement savings.

-My leadership team is comprised only of individuals I have known for five years or more.


Careful introspection with guidance from a leadership coach is useful, but a fresh perspective from outside oneself can deliver the most accurate and least biased perspective of an individual’s values. This is why after they’ve assessed their own values, I ask my clients to have their spouse or family members create a list of values that they associate with my client and then to briefly write about instances that demonstrated those values.

Finally, we rank the values, putting the value with the most evidence and support at the top. Often my clients are surprised to see what was ranked at the top and what ended up at the bottom. Sometimes a value has no evidence at all to support it and so it has to be dropped from the list entirely.   It is at that moment that we have discovered an ideal that has been mistaken for a value. Ideals are things you aspire to, but values are lived. Sometimes this can be a painful realization, but it is necessary to strip away our illusions before we can develop as leaders.

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