Examining Your Values – Take Action
Should you wish to corroborate your choice, you can ask this question: “In leading a life based on these values, am I moving toward or away from being the kind of person who would inhabit the kind of world I want to leave to my descendents seven generations hence?”
As I began the process of examining my Values, committing them to paper and prioritising them as I had done so many times in strategic planning exercises with clients, I recalled a story. It occurred in 1944 in Medicine Hat, Alberta, a tiny cattle and railroad town on the Canadian prairies. I was five years old.
The huge steam locomotive hissed a warning to straggling passengers, the conductor bellowed, “Boooaaaard,” and the train groaned into motion. Standing on the platform with my family, I was in awe of the raw power of the big train.
My father, a traveling salesman, would be gone for several months. He embraced my mother and sister, then turned to me, shook my hand and said, “Remember, son, when I’m gone, you’re the man of the house. Take good care of your mother and sister.” Then he grabbed his suitcase and leaped onto the steps of the last passenger car as the train began picking up speed.
Recalling this scene, I now realise that my training in what it meant to be a male in western Canada in the middle of the 20th Century began that day. Although I had no conscious awareness of it at the time, a prime value of my father had been forcefully planted in my subconscious mind: “A man’s first responsibility is to protect his family.”
In the early 1940’s, the Second World War dominated all of our lives. Every family in our town was impacted by its devastating affect. Many lost a father, an uncle, a son, a brother, a cousin or a friend as our young men joined the battles being waged in Europe and the South Pacific.
With many of my friends’ fathers fighting in the war, I was confused and embarrassed that my own dad was not among them. When I asked him why, he explained that some men had to remain behind to make sure families had food and clothing. The government had classified certain industries as essential to the war effort and the employees of companies in this classification were deemed essential workers and not available to join the armed forces. Dad worked for a flour milling company and was one of those who remained behind. Although I did not fully grasp the concept, I, nevertheless, did accept another important value: “A man’s second responsibility is to provide for his family.”
When planted in a young child’s mind, particularly by a trusted and respected adult such as a parent, values take root and become powerful influences in life long after they are no longer part of conscious awareness. Any effort to become more self-aware must include a review of our values.
Each of us lives by certain values. Values provide the cornerstone of conventions and laws in different cultures and societies. At a personal level, they furnish the guidelines for our determination of what is right or wrong, good or bad. They are an essential ingredient in determining the choices we make and form the foundation of our personal and professional lives and relationships.
It is helpful to recognise that values are all arbitrary. They vary from culture to culture, from religion to religion and from family to family. What is acceptable and appropriate – what is deemed right – in one group may be unacceptable and inappropriate – deemed wrong – in another. In India, for example, before entering a home or place of worship, a person is expected to remove his shoes in order not to defile the sanctity of a place with the dirt of the streets. In America, on the other hand, if one were to enter such a building bare-footed, he likely would be seen as disrespectful because of his failure to honour the acceptable dress code. Neither position is right or wrong. Each simply represents one of the many differing values of the two cultures. This is typical of the arbitrary nature of values in general.
Beginning at birth, before we are aware of what is happening, we become acculturated, taking on the values of our family, religion and culture, not knowing we have any other choice. As adults, when we either accept or reject unquestioningly those values under which we have been raised, we unwittingly allow our lives to be governed by values that are not our own. If this continues, our life will lack power and vitality. At best, we will live our lives as either a conformity to or a reaction against the standards of others. An important part of the maturation process involves individuating those values by which we will live our lives. This can be accomplished by consciously and objectively analysing the values of our family, religion and culture – their underlying precepts, merits and/or shortcomings – and then choosing those we want to retain in our own lives. If we are wise, we will choose only those that resonate with both our mind and our heart. In so doing, we will be claiming those values as our own, taking full responsibility for our life and the way we choose to live it. We will have “individuated” those values. Unlike a life lived in conformity to or reaction against others’ values, the individuated life is filled with personal power, aliveness and meaning.
Carl Jung said that individuation is becoming that which it is in one fully to become. We might say that a fully individuated acorn is an oak tree. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche illustrated the process of individuation in what he called The Three Stages of Transformation: When a person is young, he is like a camel that gets down on its knees and says, “Put a load on me.”
When he is sufficiently loaded, the camel rises to its feet and becomes a strong lion. The lion then goes out into the desert alone where its job is to find and slay the “Thou Shalt Dragon.” (On every scale of the dragon is written, “Thou Shalt …,” or “Thou Shalt Not ….”)
Once the dragon is slain, the lion becomes a little child walking in its own light. That person is then like a wheel rolling from its own center.
The camel represents the young child and the load represents the values of family, religion and culture. This is often referred to as the civilizing or enculturation process. All of us are born uncivilized and must be taught. The loading or enculturation process, while arbitrary, is nonetheless essential to the formation of our ego and our sense of place in and responsibility to society.
By the time we reach adulthood, we are all “loaded.” What is contained in the load may be of questionable value or it may be priceless. Most often, it is a combination of both. But loaded we are, and the challenge of individuation is to sort through the load to discern those things that, for us, represent the wheat and separate them from the chaff. Hopefully, we now possess the psychic presence or weight – the “strength of a lion” – to “go out into the desert alone… to find and slay the ‘Thou Shalt Dragon’.” That is to say, we must take up, one by one, each of the values that was loaded onto us in youth. We must recognise it. We must examine it. We must evaluate it. Is it valid for us? Do we want to keep all or part of it or modify it or discard it altogether? This inner work must be done alone. It can only be done alone because we now must locate and draw upon our own inner source of knowing. Even though others may later agree with this value, it must be selected solely on the basis that it is valid for us.
Sometimes it is easier to recognise the values of another than to become aware of our own. For this reason, an effective way to begin examining our own values is, first, to analyse those of the culture in which we were raised, including parents, school, church, community and ethnic group and then to become aware of those we have adopted (consciously or unconsciously) as our own.
Even if we choose to retain a value from our childhood and thereby make it our own, we still will have slain the “Thou Shalt Dragon.” That value is no longer external but is now a part of our internal core. Real personal power flows through such a value. It has withstood testing. We do not merely believe it to be true; we now know it to be true for us.
On the other hand, if a particular value, even though once beneficial, no longer serves our life expression, we may consciously choose to modify or even discard it. In this latter case, it does not necessarily mean we have deemed it to be intrinsically worthless. At the kindergarten level, simplistic and absolute rules govern much of children’s behaviour (not crossing the street alone, for instance). We do not have to continue following such rules once we are more mature, however, for we can cross the street quite safely without supervision. At the same time, we recognise that the simplistic, absolute rule (“… never, never go into the street!”) still provides protection for younger ones and, therefore, although we no longer need them, these values still have worth. In this way, we can set aside an early value without judging those who still retain it.
The individuation process is not always this clear. For example, one long-held value for me was, “Family is sacred and, therefore, all family members deserve my unconditional support.” I never questioned this value until faced with a situation in which my unconditional support would require me to act immorally.
A distant relative asked for my help with a legal situation he said was “a misunderstanding.” My knee-jerk reaction was to leap to his defense. As I proceeded to deal with this matter, however, I discovered he was charged with a very serious offense backed up by a lot of evidence. Because of his dishonesty to me and especially because of the repugnant nature of the crime, I declined to help him. In this case, I still held onto my value of helping members of my family, but I now place certain conditions on my assistance. Whereas, before, this value was of an absolute, black-and-white nature, I now hold it with shades of gray.
Another value I have individuated is, “It is my responsibility to protect and provide for my family.” Although this applied when my children were younger, I have learned that protecting and providing for them past a certain point does not really help them. It has been important for me to let go and allow them to make their own mistakes, to flex their own muscles and succeed – or fail – on their own.
These are two personal examples of slaying the dragon.
Once the dragon has been slain – once we have thoughtfully and objectively individuated our own values – we will have taken an important step toward wholeness. We then become “like a wheel rolling from our own center,” able to “walk in our own light.” We have true inner power and inner peace. This process does not occur all at once, even in a mature, strong individual. Rather, it is an ongoing, lifelong process.
Author and internationally acclaimed Jungian analyst John A. Sanford says that “guilt feelings come from a more or less distorted conscience made up of the collective attitudes of other people – parents, educators, religious leaders – that have been taken into oneself,” acting as a kind of collectivized, internal voice. Sanford goes on to say, “…our psychological development requires that [these] false guilt feelings be overcome, that we become free of the tyranny of collectivized attitudes within us.”
There is also such a thing as “true guilt.” Sanford says that true guilt occurs when we betray the truth of our own nature – when we betray our own values.
During the individuation process, we sometimes encounter guilt feelings. If pleasing others is important to us, we may feel guilty if, in the process of slaying the “Thou Shalt Dragon,” we reject a value held dear by individuals significant to us in childhood. This may occur even if the person is deceased, for the need to please lies deep in the subconscious, with roots in early childhood. This is an example of false guilt.
If we find ourselves encountering an inner struggle, perhaps feeling guilty while engaging in the process of individuating a value, this is probably a clear signal that we need to re-examine that value. Living a life based on our own values will empower, not dis-empower, us. So long as we live our life according to a value system other than our own, we will not be able to connect with our inner source of power, fulfill our destiny, or find peace and true meaning.
True guilt is appropriate and supportive to us, occurring when we betray our own truth. Once established, our own inner values form a touchstone against which we may measure our actions.
1. We are not perfect, however. Most of us make mistakes, occasionally violating our own principles. At such times we can fall into the trap of self-recrimination. When we do violate our values, it is wise to recognise and deal with the resulting discomfort by experiencing genuine remorse, recommitting ourselves to living true to our values, and then move on.
As we move through this process of individuation, we experience less inner conflict in our life decisions and less outer conflict in our personal relationships. When discord does arise, either within or without, it may well be an indication that, in some way, we are out of alignment with one or more of our values. This is an opportunity for further self-examination and choosing to alter either our values or our behaviour. In so doing, we experience increasing inner peace and a closer connection with self and others. Both are priceless in the search for meaning.
At every stage of life, we operate from two value systems. First are those principles that govern our behaviour – our internal values or what I call character values. In addition, we also have external values that dictate the priorities we set in our lives. For this reason, I call these priority values.
In choosing our priority values, it is important to give careful consideration to what is truly important and then allocate our time, energy and resources to creating a life consistent with these priority values. In modern western society, for example, a woman who has a high external value of “mothering” often finds herself torn between the desire to stay home with her young pre-school child and the need to work to provide a second income. Clearly, there is an inherent conflict between two external values – being a stay-at-home mother vs. earning money. Such conflict can prove very distressing.
Generally, our internal, character values vary little. Once we have slain the “Thou Shalt Dragon,” carefully selecting the principles upon which we build our lives, we tend to retain them throughout our lives. This is not to say that we should not continually monitor them. It simply means that clearly individuated character values seldom change.
On the other hand, external, priority values can and do change. Our priority values vary according to age, economic circumstances, responsibilities, health and so on. The priorities of a retired parent of grown children will be different from those he held when the children were little. What is important to a teenager is probably quite different from what his grandparents might choose, and vice versa. A blue collar worker and parent of three children might change her priorities if she suddenly inherited five million dollars. If you learned you had only six months to live, might you spend your time differently?
In searching for meaning in our lives and our careers, it is helpful to continually examine our internal and external values, seeking always to choose those that resonate deeply within us, and then do our utmost to live our lives in a manner that is congruent with them.
At the end of this chapter, I have included two tables, the first listing possible internal, character values and the second offering possible external, priority values. Please add to or change the list as you see fit.
Often, the easiest way to determine our values is to observe our behaviour. Our actions are the one critical test of our values, no matter what we espouse and regardless of our best intentions. This is especially true when we are under pressure, for that is when our true character emerges for all to see. Gandhi said, “My life is my message.”
Creating a meaningful and fulfilling life requires that we continually observe our behaviour, especially when under duress. Are our actions congruent with our character values? If one of our character values is courage, for example, how do we behave when threatened on the battlefield of life? If integrity is a high character value, do we behave honestly, regardless of personal consequences? If compassion is a high character value, what is our reaction when a key member of our team becomes ill, jeopardising a critical project for which we are responsible? When we find a disparity between our character values and our actions, it is incumbent upon us to take the time to reexamine the relevant value. We must ask ourselves if this is truly a principle upon which we can build a meaningful life. If so, we can then do our best to correct our behaviour. If not, we can replace the value with one that is valid for us.
The same applies to external values. As a father of four young children, I claimed “family” as my primary priority value, yet I traveled extensively, often absent for two or three weeks each month. When a friend questioned my priorities, I rationalised the gap between my stated value and my behaviour by explaining that I traveled for the sole purpose of providing for my family. As in any rationalisation, there was an element of truth in my defense. It is also true, however, that millions of fathers provide well for their families without spending large blocks of time away.
Clearly, it was appropriate for me to honestly reexamine this priority value as well as my behaviour. This is the first step in contributing to our Personal Vision: to carefully individuate our values – both our Character (Internal) Values and our Priority (External) Values – and then do our best to live a life aligned with these Values.
The values of a business form its personality and its culture – the psychological and emotional fabric of the business – and help the management team determine both its strategies and its tactics.
There are two categories of corporate values – Core and Strategic.
(a) Core Values
Every individual has a set of Internal Values – or principles – that governs his or her behaviour. In the case of a mature, whole individual, these internal values have been carefully and thoughtfully selected during the process of individuation. Others have unthinkingly accepted their internal values from family, teachers, religious leaders, peers and other unquestioned sources. In either case, the person’s behaviour will be a reflection of these values. That individual who operates from an individuated internal value system is the one who is capable of responsible Leadership.
So it is with a company. Each company operates according to an often unstated but clearly understood value system. I refer to these values or principles as a company’s Core Values. They can be thought of as the moral compass of the organisation. They create the fabric of its culture. They are timeless and do not change. The importance of Core Values was underscored by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., former chairman of IBM:
“This, then, is my thesis: I firmly believe that any organisation, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs (values) on which it premises all its policies and actions. “Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to these beliefs (values). “And finally, I believe that if an organisation is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs (values) as it moves thorough corporate life.”
As with individuals, a company’s Core Values can be (and often are) accepted without question, or they can be carefully chosen by the company’s Leadership and it’s Management Team. The latter course leads to a healthier culture.
In my consulting practice, I work with businesses to create a workable strategic plan and business plan. An important part of this process is to clearly define the Values of the business. To this end, we review the list of Core Values that are the most important to the leaders and mangers in creating the desired culture of the business. Next, we rank them in order of importance, 1 through 3. Consensus is gained through facilitation and/or negotiation. You might find such an exercise worthwhile in your own business.
(These govern our corporate culture)
(“Our Priority Is”)
(These govern our Strategies and Tactics)
If Core Values are the moral compass of a business, its Strategic Values are the practical compass. Core Values govern behaviour. Strategic Values govern Strategies and Tactics. They can be unstated but, to the extent they are discussed, selected and embraced, they help the Management Team to create sound plans for carrying out the Mission of the business.
Have a wonderful and productive month!
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