How Outperforming Leaders Make Core Values Work

Core values against compass
THE BIG IDEA: Core values only make a positive impact on an organization when they are fully embodied by leadership.


A group of five people go to an upscale restaurant. Two of them have eaten at many such restaurants. The other three have not.

The inexperienced members of the group, look around the table and find eight utensils, three plates, and three glasses in front of them. Anxiety sets in. They don’t know what to do.

What happens next?

The natural thing to do in this situation is to look around the table and see what other people are doing. People take cues from their environment when they aren’t certain how to behave.

The human brain has a remarkable capacity to learn through imitation. Recently discovered mirror neurons help explain how imitation learning works.

You Are a Model for Organizational Behavior

Imitation learning works when you have a model. In early childhood, our models are mainly our parents and teachers. As we get older, those models shift to various leaders, celebrities, politicians, and so on.

The chief executive of an organization is a model, as can be any other C-class executive or organizational leader.

Everyone else in the organization—on a subconscious level—takes cues from the top on how to behave, how to hold themselves, and how to communicate.

If the CEO is most often stern and serious, meetings will likely err toward being stern, serious, and rigid.

If the CEO is jovial and open-hearted, the work environment is likely to be more relaxed, friendly, and collaborative.

Corporate culture is largely shaped by the role models within the organization.

Why Core Values Rarely Make an Impact

Values are part of what we are. Values represent our individual essence, our greatest version of ourselves.

In a business context, core values represent the idealized behavior of each member within the organization.

When core values come to life within an organization, they foster more cohesive and collaborative teams. They attract and ignite talented people. They help differentiate your business from the competition.

Although many companies maintain a list of core values on their website and in their corporate collateral, very few companies actualize their values. Instead, they become mere slogans to which employees pay lip service.


Because it’s not easy to live up to core values consistently.

Let’s say your company has accountability as a core value. That means that as chief executive, you must be accountable to whatever you say and do. You must be accountable for your behavior in and around the office. You must remain accountable for the failures of the organization. When you make a mistake, you must be honest about it.

You can begin to appreciate why few businesses actualize their core values consistently. Core values demand a lot of us. They require us to honor and live them each day. Living core values is a discipline.

How to Embody Your Core Values

To make core values stick within your organization, they must become living, breathing principles that are embodied by leadership. Not only is this the fastest way to activate core values, it is the only way to bring them to life.

Let’s assume you have a list of core values that you would like to actualize. (If you would like assistance discovering your core values, check out this article or contact us.)

Let’s say you have a value like passion. The more passionate you become about your work and about the direction of your enterprise, the more passion you will inspire throughout your organization.

Step 1: Define the Rules

Every value has specific rules and criteria that outline desired behavior. These rules allow you to evaluate whether or not you are living up to a particular value.

It is up to you and your leadership team to clarify what these rules are.

Netflix, for example, has a core value for passion. Their criteria for passion include: inspire others with excellence; care intensely about company success; celebrate wins; and be tenacious.

When Reed Hastings or any other Netflix employee is doing any of these things, they are upholding the organization’s core value for passion. And this is what Reed and his leadership team is looking for.

Step 2: Make a Conscious Decision

Select one of your core values each week.

Brainstorm a list of ways you can embody that value based on your set of rules. Commit to actualizing this list throughout the week in your interactions around the office and behind closed doors.

Remember, your goal isn’t to simply demonstrate the core value to others; you are attempting to embody it within yourself.

Step 3: Rotate Through Each Value

You can do this on a weekly or monthly basis, whatever works best for you.

As you run this experiment, you can inspire your leadership team to do likewise.

The more energy and attention you put on shaping your own behavior around your core values, the more tangible they will become within your organization.

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