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The value of values

June 6, 2013

By Mark Hannum

This is the eighth in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage’s own Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series.—Ed.

The most effective leaders have well defined values. But, the process of determining values for a systems thinker is not exactly a straight forward exercise. All systems thinkers start by asking themselves: What is the purpose of having values? What do I want them to do for me?

Values are deeply held beliefs that guide your daily actions and decisions. They provide stability in your life and they can help you improve your relationships with others. They can also help you increase your credibility and build the trust you need to lead others. And they can also lead to happiness.

However, values are never a wish or a “like-to-have.” They should not be foreign or inauthentic either. And of course, they can change with time and age.

My values criteria are simple:

  • Having values helps me to become more self-aware. The worst circumstances and the best circumstances in my life have been characterized by a complete absence of self-awareness or a heightened sense of self-awareness. In general, self-awareness is core to living one’s values and vice-versa. Becoming more self-aware: of my context, my impact on others, and what I’m doing versus what I’m feeling is core to all of my values.
  • Having values helps me decide what to do with my career.
  • Having values helps me improve my relationships with people, particularly under stress.
  • Having values helps keeps me stay agile and open to change.
  • Having values keeps me from instant gratification.

As a result of this thinking, I arrived at the following five values:

1. Magis

I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know this word. It’s Latin and it means “more for others.” It’s how I was raised by my mother, in particular. Put others first. Give more to others. Be there for others. Support your teammates. Take care of yourself last. Of course, this is tempered by the understanding that putting yourself last can sometimes hurt others! Sometimes, you must put yourself first to help others. The underpinning of this value gave me a natural proclivity to adopt and learn servant leadership. Today, I would simply call this value, “servant leadership.”

2. Kindness

This value is a choice for me. It is a path I choose to pursue because I deeply believe in it. My personality often cloaks this value. In the past, my lack of self-awareness around the impact of what I thought were objective statements led me to make many observations of people that were downright cruel. Not untruthful, just cruel. I tended to be the scientist. I tended to look at facts. I tended to state the facts without understanding the impact they had on others. My pointed observations undid all the good things I did, all the charitable things I had done, and led people to the conclusion that I was arrogant and unconcerned about others. Nothing could have been further from what I was really thinking about and acting on. My introversion and my quiet nature only amplified things for me. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that being nice won’t get me very far. Great! Wonderful! What a world we live in!

This value continues to produce awkwardness for me. In trying to avoid being perceived as arrogant or unconcerned, I put a lot of effort into trying to be open and tempered in my reactions, but it does cause me more miscommunications (Saying nothing. Saying “OK.” Nodding in sync with the person I am talking to. Not closing the conversation down). So yes, in order to avoid being cruel, I sometimes do nothing. I’m still not where I want to be with this value. I still encounter daily problems of miscommunication. Kindness is a positive behavior that induces positive responses. That is what I value. And, this value, does in fact, often run directly in conflict with my next value.

3. Excellence

For me, there is no value of mine more misunderstood. Growing up 25 years ago in business, I, like many of my peers, learned the definition of excellence from Tom Peters. We learned 687 ways to be excellent. We learned we need a passion for excellence. For Tom, excellence is why you get up in the morning. It does not simply mean “to be unusually good at something.” It means that you surpass the common. And to be excellent means to bring a human quality to your work. I hate to quote Barbara Streisand, but she maintains that people in general confuse excellence with perfection. And perfection doesn’t exist (here in the human world). Excellence for her is caring more, risking more, dreaming more, and expecting more (particularly of oneself and others) than what people think is possible.

Excellent is not perfect. Perfect is not the goal. Doing things that others think cannot be done is excellence. In the more trivial way of thinking, excellence is doing things better. It’s a way of measuring people. But as far back as Aristotle, it has really meant having an attitude and a habit of taking on the right things. To beat the drum even louder, Peter Drucker distinguished between doing things right and doing the right thing. And doing the right thing is what excellence is all about. Simply put, it means that I get out of bed every morning trying to be better than I was the day before. I try to be better in the afternoon than I was in the morning. I try to be better from 3pm to 4pm than I was from 2pm to 3pm.

4. Risk Taking

I wish that this meant taking on dangerous behavior, but it’s really a reminder for me to stay on the cutting edge of things. Find the place in the world where you are exploring new things and new concepts. Stay current. Don’t get involved in the old. Bring in the new! I can’t and won’t teach a 30-year-old theory of motivation that has been disproven for almost as long as the theory exists. I won’t bring in concepts or tools that are not new and relevant. Give me projects that are on the edge of the discipline! I’ll talk to chimpanzees! I’ll go to work for a bankrupt company trying to change the world!

5. Ingenuity

I love doing the same things different ways. I love inventing new ways of teaching a concept. I love meeting new challenges with new ways of thinking. I love taking the odd perspective on things. I can’t even drive home from work the same way two days in a row! I love doing the out of the ordinary project. Life is too short to do the same thing day after day.

Now…if I could just create situations where just one value comes into play and I don’t have to decide between them!

Now, it’s your turn. What are your values as a leader?

More about Mark

Mark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.


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