Values are essential to effective leadership. They are the uncompromisable, undebatable truths that drive and direct behavior. They are motivational, giving us the reason why we do things; and they are restrictive, placing boundaries around behavior. Values are those things that we deem important and that provide direction and guidance in spite of our emotions.
Authors writing on the subject of leadership are paying increased attention to the importance of consistent values to a leader’s effectiveness over the long haul.1 Businesses, organizations, families and individuals all benefit from knowing and living by their core values. In business, core values are “the organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of general guiding principles; not to be confused with specific cultural or operating practices; not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency.”2 Jim Collins observes that all enduring visionary companies have a set of core values that determine the behavior of the group.3
King David demonstrated value-driven behavior in Psalm 15:
Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.
Notice that he said the person who enjoys the presence of God and lives a blameless life is the one who “speaks the truth from his heart” (vv. 1-2). Because this person values truth in his heart, his words express truth. Because he values kindness, he “does his neighbor no wrong” (v. 3). Because he values honesty, he “keeps his oath even when it hurts” (v. 4). Because he values justice, he “does not accept a bribe against the innocent” (v. 5).
Leaders who are driven by values reap a great benefit from the Lord. David said they “will never be shaken.” Regardless of what may happen around them, they can live with full confidence that the right principles have shaped their values and have guided their decisions. That confidence will give them emotional and spiritual stability. It will enable them to be leaders whom God can use for his glory.
Consider what values drove the psalmist’s behavior. As you examine your own life, what values do you see as driving your behavior? Many of us hold certain values, but our actions are not governed by the things we say we hold dear. Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves what values we want to have driving our behavior. Unless we become intentional about this, we will be shaped by the values of others. We cannot have a set of values for the office, another set for the home and a completely different set for church activities. Our goal should be to completely integrate godly values into all spheres of life.
God: The Source of All Values
God is accountable to no one, and there is no higher principle to which he must conform. He himself is the absolute of truth, beauty, goodness, love and justice. His perfect character is the essence of what the Bible calls “righteousness.” In a universe without God, what we call “good” would have no ultimate referent.
Habakkuk was a righteous prophet in the Old Testament. He struggled, as we all do from time to time, with the goodness of God in light of the fact that wicked people often prosper. Unlike many of us, however, Habakkuk was wise enough to know that when you have a question or a problem with God, the best thing to do is to go to God directly. So, he cried out, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13).
Habakkuk’s first complaint to God questioned why the Lord was allowing the people of Judah to continue in their wickedness and injustice. When the Lord answered that he was preparing the Babylonians as his weapon of judgment on Judah’s unrighteousness (vv. 5-6), Habakkuk made a more strenuous objection. The Babylonians were even more wicked than the people of Judah; how could God allow such a people to judge his people? God’s response overcame the prophet’s objections, but notice that Habakkuk was confused by an apparent incompatibility between God’s character and God’s actions.
As we look at the progressive revelation of the person of God from Genesis to Revelation, we discover him to be the immutable foundation upon which moral concepts such as goodness, love and justice are based. As did Habakkuk, Abraham struggled briefly with God, saying, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Paul added, “Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: ‘So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge’” (Romans 3:4; compare Psalm 51:4).
Habakkuk learned that God’s plan for the purification of his people went far beyond what he could understand. Although God’s actions seemed unjust and out of line with eternal values, this prophet realized that God’s actions were a small part of his larger, and perfectly sovereign, plan. In the end, Habakkuk says,
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Essentially, the prophet is saying that even though he doesn’t understand, he trusts that God’s goodness is unchanging. Habakkuk trusts God, even when things don’t seem to make sense. Habakkuk wanted to understand the way things are; he ended up learning about the way God is.
We may never find a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and suffering in our world. But when we have a fuller revelation of God, those questions seem to fade away. What we see is such a tiny piece of the puzzle. God is the only one who sees the whole picture.
We should be careful not to judge that which we don’t understand. Otherwise we’ll end up like the couple in the story about Rembrandt. It seems there was a special exhibition of the Dutch Master’s paintings, and a couple was speaking very critically of his work. Upon their leaving, a guard nearby whispered, “Here it is not the artist but the viewers who are being judged.” In other words, our failure to grasp God’s plan reveals more about us than it does about God’s plan. It is not the plan that is inferior; it is us.
God’s moral structures and values are built into the created order. The Bible affirms that even those who have not been exposed to God’s law have a conscience – a moral law – within them (Romans 2:14-16). God is not only revealed in nature, but also in the human heart. Our hearts and consciences reveal the fingerprints of a moral God. C.S. Lewis used the idea of an omnipresent, self-evident law as the starting point for his classic, Mere Christianity, what he calls the Law of Nature or the Moral Law. A few years later, in The Abolition of Man, he simply calls it the Tao that is in all cultures and societies. There is a surprisingly uniform moral absolute in most cultures – Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese. None of these, for example, honor treachery or selfishness, cowardice or deceit. These standards are there because God has placed his natural law, his moral law in our hearts. Try as we might, we simply cannot deny it.
Lewis also said, “Unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it.”4 By that, he means that unless there is some agreed upon standard for the true, the beautiful and the good, there can be no absolute standard by which we can condemn “evil” behavior. In other words, people who use the presence of evil and suffering to denounce God are really appealing to God to condemn God. In fact, when people talk about evil in this world they imply the existence of the God of the Bible, because if there is no God, then the idea of evil is arbitrary. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, so to speak. Even our notions of good and evil come to us because we bear the image of the one who initially determined the categories.
If our world continues to denounce the idea of moral absolutes, it cannot also continue to denounce the misappropriation of power and the misconduct of rich and powerful people. In a world that fails to acknowledge God as the final absolute, self-serving pragmatism will rule. The fact that people are seduced by power and wealth should not be surprising; what should surprise us is that it’s not more widespread than it already is. Christian counselor Larry Hall says:
As long as our morality continues to be based in our humanistic pride, moral consistency will elude us. We will go on being bundles of self-contradiction, wildly judging each other while vehemently demanding that no one judge us. We can forget about arriving at a consensus ethic. There is virtually no consensus in a society as pluralistic as ours. About the most we can hope for is some sense of political correctness, and who in their right mind would hope for that? Even if true consensus were possible, history has proven repeatedly that such a consensus can be very immoral. When ethics are based on self and pride, all objectivity is lost. Things are no longer right or wrong. Instead, they are feasible or impractical, desirable or unappealing, agreeable or nonnegotiable…. Indeed, the very concepts of virtue and vice become meaningless.5
Godly Values for Godly People
As human beings, the crown of God’s creation, God has “set eternity in the hearts of [people]” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). As such, godly leaders seek to live by God’s eternal values of truth, beauty, goodness, love and justice, set forth in the biblical record. If we look to the world for our moral values, we will be confused by self-interest, social conditioning and situational ethics. The values of our culture are shallow and subjective, but the moral standards of Scripture reflect God’s absolute and unchanging character. Exodus 20:1-17 shows us the clearest summary of God’s values for his people:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
God’s moral law for his people is an expression of his own changeless perfection. In the Ten Commandments, God is actually calling his covenant people to be like him. “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
The Ten Commandments begin with our demonstrated relationship with God and end with our relationships with others. In Scripture, righteousness is always realized within the context of relationships; it consistently relates to loving behavior toward God and others. “Love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13:10). “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:4).
It is one thing to know the right things to do and another to consistently do them. Jesus called us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), but this is unattainable apart from the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Larry Hall asserts, “Indeed, achieving transcendent virtue while denying transcendence is as absurdly impossible as grabbing my own collar and lifting myself off the ground.”6 Only as we live by the Spirit are we empowered to “put skin on” biblical values and make them real in our own lives.
Moving From Theory to Practice
Values are interesting to discuss in the abstract, but sometimes “values” get in the way of valuable decisions. Maintaining one’s values can cost a leader dearly. So how do we decide what matters most when we’re weighing the bottom-line costs against our bottom-line convictions?
The first step in effective leadership is defining core values. Until that is done, the ship the leader is trying to steer has no rudder. Vision, mission, strategy and outcomes are difficult – if not impossible – to define until values are clear. Jesus knew that. Early in the process of developing his team of disciples, he forced them to confront this foundational issue.
Matthew records Jesus’ primer on values in Matthew 6:1-34. Jesus focused his lesson in verses 19-21:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus urged his disciples to focus their values on things that would bear an eternal return. But how, while making a living on earth, while responsibly leading an enterprise on earth, while providing jobs, product, service and profit on earth, do we build treasure in heaven? This passage presents the crux of the value question. Jesus begins this portion of the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1). That’s the idea: Who do you work for? Whose nod of approval matters most? Who defines what really matters?
Jesus told his disciples that the core value, the driving value, the eternal value is this: “Does what I am doing please God?” Every other value is second to that one. When that value is in place, all other values line up. Matthew 6 is among the most definitive chapters in the Bible for shaping a leader’s philosophy of life and leadership. Spending time meditating on Jesus’ words here will have inestimable value.
Case Study: The Apostle Paul
The temptation often is to rationalize our lives in such a way that no matter what we do, we tell ourselves it’s okay. It’s like the story about the FBI being called into a small town to investigate the work of what appeared to be a sharpshooter. They were amazed to find bull’s-eyes drawn all over town, with bullets that had penetrated the exact center of the targets. When they finally found the man who had been doing the shooting, they asked him how he had been able to shoot with such accuracy. His answer was simple: First he shot the bullet, then he drew the bull’s-eye around where it had hit.7 God is not honored by such a haphazard approach to living. He has called us to live our lives with precision and clarity of focus.
The Apostle Paul wrestled with two desires. When he traced these desires back to their core values, he found a resolution:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Interestingly, Paul had a proper philosophy of death, and this gave rise to his proper philosophy of life. He, like Jesus, knew where he was going (cf. John 13:1). Once he knew his ultimate destination, he was free to understand who and what he was living for. Our lives are only valuable in light of eternity. These brief and ephemeral years can be leveraged into eternity. So, Paul, writing from prison, understands that he can’t really lose in this situation. Whether he is executed or acquitted, he wins.
It is with this frame of mind that he writes, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (Philippians 1:25-26). Once he was able to link his desires with his values, he possessed tremendous resolve.
Most leaders today also face the tension between competing value systems and structures. In the face of difficult daily decisions, sorting out primary from secondary values can be frustrating. Hackman and Johnson, in their book Leadership, give us some further definition that may help in this dilemma.
First they discuss what values are:
Values are at the core of individual, group or organizational identity. Values are relatively enduring conceptions or judgments about what we consider to be important. [Substantial research suggests] that a number of positive effects result from agreement between personal values and the values most prized in the organization at which we work. Agreement between personal and organizational values result in increased personal identification with the organization, higher levels of job satisfaction, greater team effectiveness and lower turnover rates.8
Then these two authors go on to identify two types of values: “terminal values” – those that deal with lifelong goals; and “instrumental values” – those that govern behaviors that achieve terminal values. Among their list of 18 terminal values are freedom, self-respect, mature love, family security, true friendship, wisdom, equality and salvation. Some of the 18 instrumental values they outline are being loving, independent, capable, broad-minded, honest, responsible, ambitious, forgiving, self-controlled and courageous.
Paul begins the passage above with a short vision statement: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” We could all do with writing a short vision statement for our own lives. This can be accomplished fairly easily. Simply add your personal values to both of the lists above, then rank-order the values. The authors then suggest that you “carefully examine the list of your top-rated terminal and instrumental values. Look for similarities, patterns, and themes.” Finally, forge a short vision statement from what you find by clarifying your values in this manner.
Paul wrestled with his desires until he clarified what he valued. Hackman and Johnson support Paul’s decision-making process by telling us that people work better with clearly understood values. Leaders who want to be effective will find that clarifying and communicating values is an essential task. Rank-ordering your terminal and instrumental values and forming a short vision statement will help you avoid taking a scattershot approach to living.
Living in the Land of Our Sojourn
We are all mortal. None of us knows how many days we have on this earth. In fact, this is one of the most common themes in Scripture – that of the pilgrim, the stranger, the sojourner. The late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins understood this imagery. His lyrics frequently made mention of a “longing for home” that sometimes caused him to weep. In the song “Land of My Sojourn,” he writes:
Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it
And how you’ll never belong here.
So I call you my country,
And I’ll be lonely for my home.
I wish that I could take you there with me.9
We do not belong here on earth. This is merely a land to travel through on our way to our final destination. Our citizenship is in heaven. Thus our ultimate aspirations must transcend anything this world can provide. There are pleasant moments, to be sure, but there are also painful moments. We must change our thinking so that we can affirm, with the Apostle Paul, that neither our temporary pleasures nor our present sufferings are “worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). These things are merely preparing us for what is to come.
As we grow and mature in the things of God, we can come to the place where our longing for our true home governs the way we live here in our temporary home. It is possible to endure great hardships and trials when you know that they are only temporary and are leading you to something far greater. Also, it is in this way that we come to see how precious our time here is, and how foolish it is to waste our time here with our noses to the grindstone or endlessly channel-surfing! How terrible to come to the end of life and realize that we were too busy or preoccupied to actually live. While we are here we have opportunities to cultivate relationships and catalogue experiences and share the gospel and serve people in need. Our boredom surely reveals more about us than about the God who places so many wonderful opportunities in our paths.
The central issue of values is summed up in what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). That is the value to value. That is the prism through which all other values must shine, the filter through which all of life’s choices are made and solutions are drawn. Until we love God properly, the rest of what we’ve learned about values will remain an academic exercise.
1 For example, the following books have been released or are scheduled for release in the year 2003: Executive Values: A Christian Approach to Organizational Leadership by Kurt Senske (Augsburg Fortress Publishers); Transformational Leadership: Value Based Management for Indian Organizations by Shivganesh Bhargave (Sage Publications); And Dignity for All: Unlocking Greatness with Values-Based Leadership by James E. Despain, et al. (Financial Times Prentice Hall); Living Headship: Voices, Values and Vision by Helen M. Gunter, et al. (Paul Chapman Publications).
2 James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Business, 1997), p. 73.
3 Ibid., p. 94.
4 C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 69.
5 Larry E. Hall, No Longer I (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1998), p. 126.
6 Hall, No Longer I, p. 127.
7 Adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 33.
8 Michael Hackman and Craig Johnson, Leadership: A communication Perspective, Second Edition (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996), p. 89.
9 “Land of My Sojourn” by Rich Mullins, Kid Brothers of St. Frank Publishing, 1993.
Related Topics: Leadership