People love to talk about core values these days, but sometimes, it feels like they’ve become more of a marketing vehicle than a tool to capture differentiation.
Why do so many companies have “integrity” as a core value—are all those companies truly more honest and moral than their competitors? It’s hard to believe. And why do so many companies have a string of core values that all start with the same letter? Is that just a coincidence, or is it because someone in branding thought it sounded snazzy? I tend to think the latter.
As a leader, I have three core values. Fun is one of them (if you can’t tell by now!) and it’s just as important as the others, which are equity (i.e., fairness) and continual learning (or self-improvement). My leadership philosophy is rooted in my core values.
The way that I discovered my core values was by asking myself a couple of questions. First: What gets me really fired up? And second: What have I gotten into trouble over? If your core values check both of those boxes, it’s a good sign that they are essential to who you are and not simply an intellectual exercise—or worse, a hollow marketing tool. Core values should connect with your heart and soul—because if they don’t, they won’t be strong enough to guide and support you in good times and bad.
For me, “fun” means enjoying myself and it includes humor. I grew up watching David Letterman and appreciate the type of humor that tends towards sarcasm; it’s part of who I am. I use sarcasm so much at work that the other members of our senior leadership team recently gave me a copy of The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm as a gift.
I work in what can seem like one of the grimmest fields there is—I deal with end of life every single day. I find that bringing humor to an otherwise dark situation can help relieve stress, anxiety, or sadness.
But there are also times when it backfires on me. In my 360-degree review, one co-worker simply said: “Stop the sarcasm.”
This can happen with any core value—you can overdo it because it’s such an inextricable part of who you are. If your core values haven’t resonated with that kind of tension and expression, then it’s time to dig in and explore what does.
Core values often intersect. For instance, fun is connected to my core value of continued learning. Learning and being challenged are fun for me, and if they aren’t, then it’s something I need to pay attention to.
That fact wasn’t always clear to me but, upon reflection, it became clearer—and it changed my life.
I used to want to be the smartest guy in the room; that’s what drove me, particularly in medical school. Then, when I was working as a physician, I was confronted with an unexpected opportunity. The owner of the practice offered to sell it to me. This was not anything I had planned or considered, but I thought it would be fun.
Truth be told, my ego thought it would be fun. I could go around and tell people that I owned a company! That sounded like fun to a guy in his late 20s, and luckily, that decision served me well. I learned a great deal (engaging that other core value), and it gave me a taste of what it would be like to be a leader. It was the stepping-stone I needed to bring me to where I am today.
I changed from wanting to be the smartest guy in the room (and making sure you knew it) to having and pursuing fun. If I look closely enough, being the smartest guy in the room was never really a value of mine—the reason I wanted it was because it was fun.
None of us (hopefully) is the same person we were at age 18 or 20, but true core values are inherent to who we are. They are unique to you, and in order to reap the benefits of what these values can offer, it is critical to dig deep, reflect, and see what you’ve cared so much about that you were willing to do anything for it—to your betterment or your demise.
Let me know in the comments below how your core values have sometimes served you and other times have gotten you in a little bit (or a lot) of trouble.