Chapter 8: Culture/Values

Born in 1775, the United States Marine Corps is rich in tradition and enjoys a deeply rooted culture. Core values are the fundamental glue that holds all of this together.

Values have been described as an organizational, or personal, North Star-- a constant fixture that guides us in the face of uncertainty. In the Northern Hemisphere, as long as one can see the North Star, he or she is able to navigate through any situation and arrive at the intended destination. Similarly, values enable people to confidently make decisions in the absence of any other guidance and know they are going to achieve their goals in a manner consistent with the expectations and behavioral norms of their organization. Values help an organization perform in the absence of the leader.

The culture of the United States in the early 21st century is one in which values don’t get much attention. On the news and in print, we see daily examples of the degradation of fundamental norms. In this “all about me” society, people believe they are living in that old Burger King commercial and can “have it their way”—all the time. To watch the media, it seems only people behaving badly receive praise and recognition. Poor behavior, ill manners, and even law-breaking seem to garner praise and recognition by our media. Consider music videos that are less about music and more about sex. Or Wall Street traders who are less concerned about shareholder value and more concerned about their own net worth. Church leaders, too, are in the news for adhering to a standard of self-preservation as opposed to the standard of a higher calling of justice and respect. In these examples, these “leaders” don’t appear to have values worth emulating. In fact, their behavior perpetuates the “it’s all about me” mentality, and these people are often rewarded for their misguided efforts. “Why bother having values” people may wonder, “if they don’t matter anymore?”

In the world of business, too, values receive short shrift. Business managers thrive on metrics and measurement. Theirs is a world of spreadsheets and cash flow projections. They wrongly perceive that time can be spent more profitably in ways other than discussing corporate values. When values are mentioned, perhaps in a strategic planning session, it is often in a quick and perfunctory conversation held to get the check mark for having talked about them at all. Then talk moves on to action planning. Managers cannot apply total quality management and six sigma to values. Values cannot be reengineered. They are not quantifiable, and, in the business world, “if you can’t measure it, don’t bother with it.”

When managers do talk about values, it is just that, talk. The employees know that the managers don’t really believe what they are saying, or they may believe it, but the process and policies of the company run counter to the values. Compensation based on personal production, for example, will seriously challenge any values citing the importance of team performance.

This emphasis on values and behavioral norms applies to the many non-profit organizations in our society as well. Some are interested in the environment, some in cancer research, and others in social welfare. The point is that people choose to work with one of them, based on the beliefs and values of that organization.

In 1996, Zell Miller, former Governor of Georgia, and a former Marine, wrote Corps Values; Everything You Need to Know, I Learned in the Marines. It is a candid handling of character issues that don’t get much press these days: neatness, punctuality, brotherhood, persistence, pride, respect, shame, responsibility, achievement, courage, discipline, and loyalty. He agrees that the word “values” is a broad, generic term that has different meanings for different people, but he goes on to cite them as the basic, bedrock traits that constitute the foundation upon which successful lives are built.

Extending his premise, I would say that the values of your organization are the basic bedrock upon which success will be built. But these values have currency only if everyone knows what they are and they live them. The only possible way for people to know the values of your organization is for you to talk about them, model them, and integrate them into every action and decision you make.

Wally Adamchik is the President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. You can visit him on the web at or email him at

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