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In Focus: What are values worth if we're not willing to stand by them?

Our In Focus series of articles originally appeared in The Leadership Bulletin, a free weekly bulletin for leaders and managers. You can subscribe here.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of drawing similarities between business and politics. Whilst both are important and require significant skills of the people who practice them, they are fundamentally different things. Business is about investing to provide a product or service, at a profit, to create value. Politics is about managing and executing the affairs of the state. But there is one similarity I want to focus on: the importance of values.

Businesses today love to display their values. The usual sign that this is part of their advertising strategy is if they tell you little (or nothing) about what they do, but instead associate themselves with a cause or set of widely praised values. See this advert from Facebook during the pandemic, or this 2017 advert from Nike. The first one tries to link itself with the emotion and compassion shown in the pandemic; the second with the fight for racial equality in America. Both noble causes impressively articulated in the ads - so much so, you could almost forget that they are trying to sell you social media and trainers.

Do either Facebook or Nike live up to their values? Each of us will have to make our own judgements. Both companies have been impacted by scandals that might lead us to question how deep these values run; it’s in their response to such scandals, and the actions that they take as corporations, that the weight of their values will be found. After all, values only find their meaning when they are put in to practice. At the level of words in a corporate document or advertising campaign, values are next to meaningless.

I see a striking similarity in the way some western leaders operated after Russian troops first crossed the Ukrainian border. Political leaders were united in their condemnation of Putin’s invasion as a violation of the values we all hold dear. But when pressure began to build for sanctions, grumblings of reluctance could be heard in some European capitals. Germany, which buys a lot of Russian coal and gas, did not want Russia excluded from the SWIFT banking system; ultimately, it conceded some, but not all, Russian banks could be kicked out. The Belgian government demanded an opt-out for its diamond industry and Italy’s Prime Minister insisted that Italian luxury goods were excluded from any sanctions package. As one source told a Telegraph reporter, “Apparently selling Gucci loafers to oligarchs is more of a priority than hitting back at Putin.”

The question for those leaders is: what do your values really mean if you’re unwilling to make sacrifices to put them in to practice?

Most of us don’t run major corporations or powerful governments and it isn’t usually big decisions of geopolitical importance that we face, but the smaller business decisions that demand we do the right but awkward thing over the wrong but easy one. Perhaps that means maintaining a transparent working environment when secrecy may save embarrassment, including to yourself. Or maybe it means maintaining your commitment to corporate social responsibility, even when budgets are tight. It might even mean choosing a more expensive product for your supply chain because of the ethics of the supplier, rather than the cheaper, less ethical alternative.

If we are to be good and authentic in either politics or business, our values demand action, not just words. Whether we’re the CEO of Facebook, the Prime Minister of Italy, or run a small high street store, there is an important lesson there for each of us.