Why Your Values Aren’t Really Your Values Until They’re Tested – Lessons from Desmond Doss

I watched a movie this weekend based on a true story of a man who knew a thing or two about values. Desmond Doss was a seemingly ordinary young man who refused to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Although he was desperate to serve his country, he didn’t believe in killing another human being. After being drafted, he was ostracised, endured ridicule, and experienced hatred from his fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance.

But Doss stuck to his values.

The rest as they say, is history.

Doss went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honour and earn respect for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life – without firing a shot – to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa. (Pictured above is Desmond Doss holding the Medal of Honour. Image courtesy of the Desmond Doss Council)

If you want to see the powerful portrayal of his story, watch Hacksaw Ridge which was nominated for six Oscars.

(Desmond Doss at Okinawa. Image courtesy of the Desmond Doss Council)

Few of us will ever have our values tested to the same extent as Doss did. But if you’re a leader, you’ll have your values tested nevertheless.

When you’re pushed for time, when there’s pressure on short-term results, when you’re stressed out, wrung out, or merely when there’s an easier choice that could be made in that particular moment – that’s the time the rubber hits the road.

That’s the time when our values quietly ask whether we will hold true to them.

Doss did. I know I haven’t always.

Here are a few ways you can be more like Doss when it comes to adopting values-based leadership:

  1. Define them. What exactly are the values you hold dear in your role as a leader? Leadership must be rooted in who you are and what matters most to you. When you know yourself and what you stand for, it’s easier to lead with your values. But you can’t do that unless you intentionally define them. Is honesty one of your values? What does that actually mean to you? What behaviour will we see if you are being honest? Be specific. Establish a basic definition for yourself around how you express that particular value through your behaviour. It’s better to have fewer values that you enact every day, than a long list that you pay lip service to. Finally, once you have them defined, write your values down and look at them often to remind yourself.
  1. Rank them. Prioritising your values is an uncomfortable but necessary process. There’ll be times when you’ll have to choose between them. Knowing which values rank highest for you can be vital. Doss knew that “thou shalt not kill” ranked higher than many other important values for him. This knowledge provided an anchor for him.
  1. Practice them daily. Values don’t count if you don’t demonstrate them on a regular basis. Is courage one of your values? How can you demonstrate courage in your weekly meetings, with clients, or in a conversation with a colleague?
  1. Embed your values and get better at leading with them front and centre by regularly reflecting on the following questions:
  • When do I find it easy to demonstrate these values?
  • In which situations do I find it more difficult?
  • When I fell short, what was going on? What did I learn?
  • What can I do the next time I’m faced with a similar situation to enable me to demonstrate that value more clearly?
  • Why is this value important to me and what are the benefits to me and others when I lead with it?
  1. Keep on keeping on. Know that values-driven leadership is a journey and it’s not about being perfect. Doss’ values-based leadership was pretty spectacular. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reach his lofty heights every day. When you fall short, go back to number 4.

Knowing your values is one thing. Sticking to them when the going gets tough, like Desmond Doss did, takes real guts.

But, if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll find leadership based on values not only makes you a better leader, it makes you feel better about yourself too.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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