Mon Aug 19 2019 Michael McQueen

Orienteering will always be one of my most vivid and fond memories of my days as a Scout - dropped in the middle of nowhere with a few buddies, the essentials, a map and a compass. One of orienteering’s most important lessons was learning to differentiate between magnetic and true north, adjusting our map and compass accordingly.

Presuming the difference between the two norths was insignificantly small, some Scouts figured they could just work it out as they went along. However, the diversion of a few degrees, compounded over many hours or days of walking, typically led them many miles off-course.

It’s much the same for any organization or individual.

Without clear values to guide conduct and culture, it’s easy to lose our way, lose sight of the things that really count and subsequently lose the trust of those who matter most. 

The power of having a clear set of values and guiding principles in an organization is that they help clarify:

  • The attitudes you will accept
  • The priorities you give precedence to
  • The behaviour you esteem

In a powerful example of values in action, consider the offensive scene that unfolded on a Delta Airways flight in November 2016.

As one particular passenger boarded flight DL5371 from Atlanta to Allentown, he strode down the aisle clapping his hands and shouting, "Donald Trump, baby. Have we got some Hillary b - - - - - s on here?" and on the tirade went.

The video of this scene, captured on a fellow passenger’s phone, quickly went viral on Facebook and prompted an immediate response from Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian.

Citing Delta’s value of dignity and respect for passengers and employees, Bastian refunded the tickets of every passenger on the flight and placed a ban on the offending passenger ever traveling on a Delta service in future. Going even further, Bastian apologised that the staff hadn’t immediately removed the passenger from the flight: "… if our colleagues had witnessed firsthand what was shown in the video, there is no question they would have removed him from the aircraft. It is important that the airline admit its mistakes when one is made.” 

Now that’s the sort of values-led integrity and honesty that wins the trust of customers.

A dangerous dynamic unfolds when an organization’s stated values don’t match the reality. This is something leaders must work hard to discern. Some brands and leaders choose to ignore incongruence, while others are simply unaware of it.

A few years ago I assisted a leadership team in the strategic planning of their sizable optometry practice. In the early stages of the program I spent time clarifying the business’ values, and it was quickly established that integrity, honesty and customer service were core guiding values.

When our attention turned to the disruptive threats facing their business, one of the most significant ones they identified was the increasing number of patients purchasing contact lenses online. As we started to brainstorm how to combat this threat, one of the business’s key leaders brought up a tactic they had been trialling that seemed foolproof.

“When customers ask for their contact lens prescription so they can go online and have it filled, we send it to them with one of the key measurements removed. Without that measurement, they have to come back in store.”

I was stunned at what I was hearing. Even more startling was that this otherwise savvy leadership team didn’t recognise the incongruence of this practice with the values they had previously agreed were core to the business.

The reality is that organizations and brands that compromise their core values in the pursuit of profits, growth or relevance are unlikely to last the distance.

During a 2013 investigation into bullying and harassment in the Australian military, Lieutenant General David Morrison offered a profound insight: "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept." The moment we catch ourselves accepting behaviour, attitudes or choices that fail to align with our organization’s stated values, we actually endorse them.

In order to earn and keep the trust of the market, it is critical that an organization’s practices, policies and processes are aligned to non-negotiable principles. After all, the moment we compromise on our values, the seeds of distrust are irrevocably sown. Innovation without integrity will always end badly and it takes courage to hold fast to commitments that may be costly in the short term.

So, what are your non-negotiables? And what are you unwilling to walk past or accept?

Operating with values is often costly. The old axiom applies here: a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. However, the return on this investment – the trust, affinity and esteem earned in the market – is difficult to put a price on.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,