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Values Always Cost You Something. That’s What Makes Them Different From Platitudes.

2023 May 21
by Greg Satell

When I was in Panama last year for a keynote I had the opportunity to speak with Erika Mouynes, the country’s former Foreign Minister, about the war in Ukraine. Her ministry had strayed from its traditionally neutral stance by calling for “respect for the sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine based on international law.”

She told me that when she later met with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, he asked her why she cared about a country thousands of miles away where Panama has no tangible interests. What did she expect to gain? She told him that sometimes you need to make decisions based on values that are important to you.

Her position was not without risk. Panama depends on broad international support for its canal. Yet many of the executives at the event told me how proud they were of her support for sovereignty, an issue that Panama has sometimes struggled with in its history. The truth is that, to mean something, values always cost you something. Otherwise they’re just platitudes.

Gandhi’s Ahimsa

Today, many dismiss Mohandas Gandhi as guileless and quixotic. He himself once said,  “Men say that I am a saint losing myself in politics. The fact is I am a politician trying my hardest to be a saint.” He was, in truth, a master strategist, luring opponents into a dilemma that would put them in an impossible position of choosing either surrender or damnation.

One of the first principles of his philosophy of Satyagraha was ahimsa, or nonviolence, which was rooted in the quest for truth. If no one could claim to have absolute knowledge of the truth, then it followed that using violence—or any other means for that matter—to compel people to accede to your will would be to undermine, rather than support truth.

To the modern ear, Gandhi’s views seem idealistic at best, if not completely naive, yet there was much more to his philosophy than met the eye. His aim was to undermine his opponents’ legitimacy. He sought to back them into a corner in which both action and inaction would yield essentially the same result —an upending of the existing order.

As General Jan Smuts, Gandhi’s chief adversary in South Africa, put it,  “It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect… For me—the defender of law and order—there was the usual trying situation, the odium of carrying out the law, which had not strong popular support.” Smuts had not only been defeated; he had been won over and lost any rationale to keep fighting.

Gerstner’s Devotion To The Customer

When Lou Gerstner took over as CEO of IBM in 1993, the company was near bankruptcy. Many thought it should be broken up. Yet Gerstner saw that its customers needed the firm to help them run their mission-critical systems and the death of IBM was the last thing they wanted. He knew that to save the company, he would have to start with its values.

“At IBM we had lost sight of our values,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of Gerstner’s chief lieutenants, told me. “IBM had always valued competitiveness, but we had started to compete with each other internally rather than working together to beat the competition. Lou put a stop to that and even let go some senior executives who were known for infighting.”

Gerstner had been a customer and knew that IBM did not always treat him well. At one point the company threatened to pull service from an entire data center because a single piece of competitive equipment was installed. So as CEO, he vowed to shift the focus from IBM’s “own “proprietary stack of technologies” to its customers’ “stack of business processes.”

Yet he did something else as well. He made it clear that he was willing to forego revenue on every sale to do what was right for the customer and he showed that he meant it. Over the years I’ve spoken to dozens of IBM executives from that period and virtually all of them have pointed this out. Not one seems to think IBM would still be in business today without it.

“Lou refocused us all on customers and listening to what they wanted and he did it by example,” Wladawsky-Berger, remembers. “We started listening to customers more because he listened to customers.”

The World’s Debt To Katalin Karikó

In the early ’90s, Katalin Karikó was trying to solve a tough problem.  A young researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, she had been working on an idea to hijack the protein manufacturing machinery in our cells (called ribosomes) to directly produce things that could help our bodies fight disease. Yet despite her best efforts, she was making little progress.

To understand the problem, imagine you want to hijack someone else’s factory to make your own product. Because the factory is automated, it is just a matter of installing software at the factory, but to do that you need to get past security. Replace “software” with genetic instructions and “security” our body’s immune system and, in a nutshell, that is what Katalin had to overcome.

By 1995, things came to a head. Unable to secure grants to fund her work, the university told her that she could either direct her energies in a different way, or be demoted. “I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Katalin would later recall. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”

She decided to stick it out and eventually struck up a partnership with Drew Weissman, an immunologist who had some ideas about how to slip the genetic instructions past the cell’s natural defenses. Their work led to a breakthrough and, when the Covid pandemic broke out in 2020, the mRNA technology they invented led to life saving vaccines in record time.

Today, mRNA is being used to develop a number of therapies beyond vaccines, including cures for cancer and other diseases. Sticking to her values certainly cost Katalin Karikó, but the rest of us benefited enormously.

Values Are How An Organization Honors Its Mission

Values are essential to how an enterprise honors its mission. They represent choices of what an organization will and will not do, what it rewards and what it punishes and how it defines success and failure. Perhaps most importantly, values will determine an enterprise’s relationships with other stakeholders, how it collaborates and what it can achieve.

When we sit down with executive teams to help them drive transformation and change, one of the first things we ask them is to define their values. Usually, they can easily rattle off a list such as, “the customer,” “excellence,” “integrity,” and so on. Then we ask them what those values cost them and we get blank stares.

The problem is that values are often confused with beliefs. When you’re sitting around a conference table, it’s easy to build a consensus about broad virtues such as excellence, integrity and customer service. True values, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic. They represent choices that are directly related to a particular mission.

Make no mistake. Real values always cost you something. They are what guides you when you need to make hard calls instead of taking the easy path. They are what makes the difference between looking back with pride or regret. Perhaps most importantly, they are what allows others to trust you.

Without genuine commitment values there can be no trust. Without trust, there can be no shared purpose.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash


Regenerate response

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter in Toronto permalink
    May 21, 2023

    Thank you for your clarity re genuine commitment values versus mere platitudes. Your examples are all historical, in today’s age of instant independent communications, an organization’s values must be **recognizable to and shared by all of its stakeholders**, particularly clients and prospective clients.
    This backs up your words, “Perhaps most importantly, values will determine an enterprise’s relationships with other stakeholders, how it collaborates and what it can achieve.”
    So please, when you use the word Values, refer to them as Shared Values or some equally collaborative term.
    Peter in Toronto, CA

  2. May 26, 2023

    Business: Converting Values into Valuables.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. Energy cannot be created or destroyed so for existing energy to change into new energy there must be some energy sacrificed. Change has a cost but staying true to a value we choose to live by costs energy too. Sustaining Integrity or Authenticity is not a free lunch.

    I once was asked to create a working definition of Energy for a group of people. It had to work just as well for a physicist, therapist, business coach or politician.
    The short version was,

    “Energy is the quantity and quality of relationships within a system as well as between that system and others.”

    When we change relationships we change energy, function and form of internal and external environments and systems they are part of. Change the energy and you change the relationships. The act of transforming energy arises from exercising your will to apply an intention with some focus of attention. This process is always driven by a value. The result is something of value. Sustained, the outcome is something valuable.

    I once won a competition for the best business advice in a tweet that reflects these dynamics..

    “Business is about taking values and making them of enough value so they become valuable to others.”

    It’s about converting values into valuables. It’s never a 100% energy efficient process. There will always be energy lost. However, by aligning to the right values we can streamline the process. Values provide aerodynamic form to our character and process. They facilitate progress while ensuring we flow around or move through what resists our intentions. We cannot avoid the costs of energy transformation, or conversion of values into valuables but we can minimise those conversion costs with the aerodynamics of our enacted values.

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