I’ve often heard people say, “Values don’t matter until they cost you something.” When I’d hear someone say that, I’d usually smile and nod my head in subtle agreement, never fully considering the meaning of that statement. It wasn’t until I actually faced an important values dilemma that I realized both the meaning and the irony of that phrase. Each of us employs values to guide everyday behaviors, and by extension, nearly every action and decision becomes a trade-off of competing values. Most of the time we do this work without thinking, and as a result, we are woefully ill-prepared to calculate the costs of our values until it’s too late. I learned my lesson the hard way, but I believe there is a more effective and practical solution.
A few years ago, I had a series of day-long meetings with a small organization and worked my way through an exhausting set of small group Q&A sessions, one-on-one meetings, speeches, and socializing dinners. In advance of the meetings, I spent a great deal of time preparing and focusing my messages, highlighting significant lessons and experiences, and intensely studying the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Over the course of the day, I felt that I’d provided an authentic perspective to the organization and an honest insight into my values and beliefs as a leader.
At the end of the day I accepted, on a whim, an invitation to attend an informal event hosted on site. The evening began innocently enough but devolved from “edgy” to something that, in my view, was unacceptable. While I felt uncomfortable in the moment, I faced the dilemma of standing out from the crowd. My value of speaking candidly and honestly was at odds with my value of self-protection and acceptance. Unprepared as I was, I smiled and nodded my head in subtle agreement (an oddly familiar reaction). I had prepared for the formal challenges, but in everyday, informal behaviors I failed to exercise my values effectively. I took my values for granted, and the real cost was in feeling that I’d backed away from my core.
The funny thing about a values dilemma is that, if left unresolved, it will reemerge. I soon faced another opportunity to comment on the evening’s events and, emboldened by my previous failure, I offered a more candid, honest assessment. In fact, I now had the opportunity to explain my reasoning and how that related to my beliefs and philosophy of leadership. In the end, my inattention to values in everyday life left me unprepared to face a much larger dilemma. I realized I need to consistently think and articulate how values affect my every day decisions and actions. The focus and accountability of investing regularly and purposefully into my character helps build the core strength to carry me through the unexpected dilemmas I face in the future. In the end, I believe that’s a small price to pay for something that costs a lot.
Contributed by: CAPT Steve Trainor, U.S. Navy (Retired), Ph.D.