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Do you know what your values are?

5 min read


One of the most powerful and heartwarming subplots from the tragic period of the Holocaust was the heroic role that many “righteous gentiles” played in saving the lives of Jewish neighbors and refugees. Many men and women sheltered and fed Jews who sought sanctuary, at the risk of their own lives. A handful of diplomats used the power of their positions to issues visas and other documents to allow the refugees to leave Europe and seek asylum on new shores.

One such man was a Catholic diplomat, Aristides de Sousa Mendes. He served as Portuguese counsel general in Bordeaux, France, on the eve of the war. Due to its neutrality, Portugal was in position to issue visas for desperate people seeking to emigrate. Despite a policy that forbade the issuance of visas without prior permission, Sousa Mendes began to do just that. During a three-day period in June 1940, he and his staff are credited with issuing 30,000 visas. For his insubordination, the Portuguese Foreign Office summarily dismissed Sousa Mendes and stripped him of his rank, salary and pension. Later, when asked about his decision, he demonstrated no remorse. To the contrary, he proudly declared that he would rather “be clear with God against man than with man against God.”

We noted in a recent post how important our values are in helping us to make decisions. As leaders, we have many opportunities each day to choose between possible actions and reactions. Oftentimes, we tap into our core set of principles to make those selections. Though the choices that we make are typically not of the life-altering variety, we can use the example set by Sousa Mendes to decide how we will align ourselves in the event of conflict. Such selections may include:

  • Preserving character and integrity over the company’s bottom line.
  • Prioritizing the needs of an individual employee above company policy.
  • Maintaining a collaborative approach despite our personal agenda.

As with Sousa Mendes, we want to “be clear” with those individuals and/or causes that we most value at all times. Of course, where it is possible to satisfy both sides of the proverbial aisle, we should strive to keep all parties and interests happy.

The choice between saving lives and preserving our careers may be clear enough. However, in many cases, the gap between competing values may not be as wide. How can we be sure that our decisions are properly motivated? Moreover, what are we to do when some of our values seem to operate in direct conflict with each other?

One example of a values conflict is our desire to provide materially for our families while also spending meaningful time with them. Another illustration is when a better-paying job opens up in a different company. In such cases we must weigh loyalty and fidelity against our wish for growth and increased income.

Sometimes, it is best to have someone that we can consult with to help us flesh out our thoughts and identify the values that we hold most dear. This is where a coach can be particularly helpful. The role of a coach is to help others achieve clarity of vision and purpose, with the goal of realizing a sense of deep contentment.

One tool that coaches use is a values list. Such lists contain countless ideals and principles, such as care, decisiveness, family-orientedness, financial success, loyalty, openness, service, and thoroughness. The idea is for clients to narrow down the list to a handful of values that they hold most dear and to use these guiding principles when faced with questions about work-home balance, career decisions and the like.

A good way of starting to identify your core values and drives is to identify when in the past you felt really good and confident that you were making good choices. Find examples from both your career and personal life. What were you doing? Were you with other people? What other factors contributed to your happiness? If you were particularly proud of something, think about why you were proud.

The same holds true for feelings of satisfaction and contentment. Try to label your thoughts as you reflect with particular values (if you were proud to earn a degree or attend a child’s graduation, which values do those speak to?) Then, aim to prioritize your values list and identify a short list that can guide you at a time of decision-making.

To create such a list may not seem like an exciting process. Nor is it necessarily easy to achieve. After all, who doesn’t want to say that they value everything that is virtuous? That said, by achieving increased clarity in what really drives us, we can lead from a sense of clear direction and deep fulfillment, always seeking to “be clear” with the people and/or principles that we value most.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and consultant following a 15 year career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at