Hollow to the Core

Lance Ideas, Integrity, Leadership Comments

“Core values” are all the rage nowadays. Book authors, corporate advisors, TED talkers, and article writers all have something to say about the need for core values, mission statements, and words of vision. Regression to the mean being what it is, what was originally novel is now too often corporatized cliche. For example, this mission statement is equally lofty and banal, and would not look out of place in the opening pages of a great many corporate annual reports:

[Company X] provides its customers quality [products/services] and the expertise required for making informed buying decisions. We provide our products and services with a dedication to the highest degree of integrity and quality customer satisfaction, developing long-term professional relationships with employees that develop pride, creating a stable working environment and company spirit.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this company before:

Dunder-Mifflin-Logo-Cast-the-office-28us-29-34267_1024_819


To move past the mission statement wasteland of hollow words and empty jargon, here are two simple (but not easy) steps:

1) Kill the words themselves: lose the jargon that has turned to white noise for employees the world over. Due to their overuse as words and underuse as actual guiding principles, words like “value” and “innovation” are nearly worthless as conveyors of genuine, inspirational purpose.

2) Sign up for some pain: in the words of Patrick Lencioni, from his insightful yet practical book on organizational health, The Advantage

An organization knows that it has identified its core values correctly when it will allow itself to be punished for living those values and when it accepts the fact that employees will sometimes take those values too far.

It is this willingness to “be punished” that puts energy and soul into the otherwise hollow containers of core values such as “Integrity,” “Accountability,” and “Customer Centered.” The cost of having such values has to be capable of hurting at some point if they are to have any animating value whatsoever. In other words, because of what you say you believe, revenue may have to be lost, costs may have to be absorbed instead of avoided, and high performing employees may have to be asked to leave.

I recently came across the core values page of a church here in the Cincinnati area that was hosting a leadership conference. The title of Crossroads Church’s core values page is quite emotionally evocative: “Seven Hills We Die On.” I was surprised by the visceral imagery of this church’s take on core values, which is itself ironic given how Christianity’s namesake stated his own mission statement. But looking at core values this way really equips leadership to articulate values that ignite. Too often we ask others “is this the hill you really want to die on?” as a cynical way of really saying “this fight isn’t worth getting hurt over.” Imagine the animating energy of an organization that had the clarity and focus that comes from clearly stating “Yes, these values are the hills we are willing to die on.” Those are the hills that inspire troops to fight with their life for.

You want your people to give their all in support of your cause — willing to suffer hardships and undertake hard labors in order to accomplish the noble mission of your organization? Identify for them where the organization will do the same, and watch what happens.