How to Discover Your Core Values

I mentioned in my previous post that one of the most important things you can do as a CEO to build a great culture is to know – and live – your own personal core values.  Clearly, the first step is discovering what those values are.  Here is a process you can take yourself through (or work through with a coach or advisor) to clarify and prioritize your values:

1. Create a list of potential values

  • Make a list of the 3 – 5 peak experiences in your life; moments or events in which you felt totally energized and alive, the best version of yourself. For each one, ask yourself: ‘what values were being honored that made this a peak experience for me?’
  • Make a list of 3 – 5 role models, people you most look up to and aspire to emulate. For each one, ask yourself: ‘what values does this person demonstrate that makes her/him a role model for me?’
  • Make a list of your 3 – 5 closest friends and your significant other (if you have one). For each one, ask yourself: ‘what is it I value about this person that’s led them to be one of the most important people in my life?’
  • Make a list of 3 -5 things you can’t stand, things that really bother or anger you.  For each one, ask yourself:  ‘what values are being violated by this?’
  • Once you’ve answered all these questions, you should have one long list of possible core values.

A note on what constitutes a core value for this purpose:

Your list of values should ultimately only include concepts that are inherently valuable to you for their own sake; you can’t ‘click down’ anymore to find a value that underlies the concept. To test whether a concept on your list is a value, try asking yourself: ‘What’s important to me about [this concept]?’ and see if there’s really something else underlying it.  Also, the words and phrases you use to describe your values do not have to be neat and clean (in fact, the less cookie cutter they are, the more beneficial the list will likely be for you). The key is that they capture the essence of what you value in a way that resonates for you.

2. Group similar concepts from your list that reflect essentially the same value to create customized value strings.

(i.e., “that warm fuzzy feeling / connectedness / love / warmth / intimacy / mushy-ness”)

3. For each customized value string, write down the image that pops into your head when you think about the words.

Values are as much poetry as science, and sometimes an image captures the essence of the value more fully than any set of words or phrases do. Plus, it’s a great heuristic that makes it much easier to remember your values, and keep them front of mind.

Example: Value String: excellence / soaring to new heights / courage.  Image: Eagle.

4. Rank your top 10 [value strings/images] in order of importance from 1 – 10 (1 = most important, 10 = least important)

Optional: You may also want to rate to what degree you’re honoring each value in your life today from 1-10 (1 = not at all, 10 = completely).  This will give you insights into what’s driving shifts in your level of energy and fulfillment, and reveal some ideas about what you can do to bring your life into alignment with your values.

Credit: Many of the ideas behind this process come from ‘Co-Active Coaching‘ by Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House and Phillip Sandahl, and the related courses at The Coaches Training Institute. If you’re interested in learning more about values, and/or fundamental coaching skills, I highly recommend the book, and the Institute.

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