In recent months, the subject of “values” has garnered a great deal of media attention and debate, thanks to the heightened emotions that seem to define our elections process. Much of the discussion — nationally and even regionally — has been condescending.
Some columnists, such as Los Angeles Times editorial/opinion editor Michael Kinsley have gone so far as to label individuals with contrasting opinions as “values mongers.” Others are seemingly dumbfounded as to why people in this country care whether government, corporate, small business and/or educational leaders possess values. Still others have dismissed the dialogue as foolish and naïve and suggest that integrity and competency are mutually exclusive.
During my 40-something years, I’ve lived in both metropolitan and rural regions, and I’ve worked for and with a host of individuals with backgrounds and belief systems that differ greatly from my own.
As a native New Yorker who has lived in the South for the past 20 years, I’ve seen stereotypical thinking on both sides. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that people are simply people with the same human attributes and flaws from Wall Street to Main Street. But simultaneously, I’ve also learned that our talents and our imperfections should not be used as excuses to justify intolerance, indifference or a lack of integrity in our actions towards others.
And that’s where “values” come in.
As a former student, as a career person and more importantly, as a parent, I’ve seen situations over the years where individuals in leadership positions were extremely intelligent or capable from a technical standpoint, but insensitive or unprincipled in the manner that they carried out their responsibilities. For those individuals, personal advancement or the accomplishment of targeted professional goals were the priority at any cost, despite the impact on family members, peers or the broader community. Because of their intellect or superior technical talents, excuses were made when bad behaviors toward others surfaced.
On the other hand, I can remember circumstances where individuals in leadership positions taught me invaluable life lessons because of their dedication, patience and character. They didn’t moralize to others — they lived their standard of integrity on a daily basis. These were the people who were willing to make potentially unpopular short-term decisions because it would benefit the organization in the long run, were willing to share credit for accomplishments with others and genuinely aimed to honor their commitments via organizational and self-improvement.
Subsequently, when I think of “values” in the workplace, in government or in schools, I’d like to think of character traits that I witnessed in those individuals that are applicable to every socioeconomic group: Honesty and humility; courtesy and respect toward others; integrity in keeping one’s word and commitments; open and forthright communication; cooperation and teamwork; an appreciation of the talents and contributions of others; and finally, a willingness to make something better than the way that you found it.
A political pundit recently quipped that a country whose dialogue “is all about values” is “either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems.” I would respectfully disagree.
If there is no standard of integrity in the manner in which we treat each other or if we trivialize or denigrate those who aim for such standards, then we diminish our opportunities to work together to solve our problems.
Tupelo-based freelance journalist and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday writes regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.