Canada and the US celebrate the origination of their respective nationhood in close proximity. We’re approaching America’s 245th anniversary and yesterday we celebrated the 154th for Canada. Each country established its own constitution as part of its origination. Constitutions serve as the skeleton for a society. They outline the high level principles and aspirations that form the basis of the backbone for what a country is choosing to stand. It helps its leaders and citizens answer questions like who are we and what’s important. Oh, Canada, we stand on guard for thee… says our anthem, but Do we? Do we keep close to heart a core phrase or section of our constitution? A recent US survey found that over 1/3 of Americans couldn’t name a single right listed in the US Bill of Rights. If we don’t know what our nation’s stand for, what are the chances we know what our business or personal values are?
Before some of the founders crafted their nation’s constitution, they had built personal codes of conduct for themselves. One of the founding fathers of the US and its third President, Thomas Jefferson, was known for offering rules or axioms for behavior to those with whom he had contact. Some he crafted on his own, others were ones he adopted from other sources. Each served a purpose to provide a structure around which purposeful behavior could be cultivated. One of Jefferson’s rules was to “never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.” This fueled a sense of urgency that built a bias for action allowing Jefferson to accomplish many remarkable things. He also embraced a rule, “Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.” This led Jefferson to focus on taking action independently before involving others. He wanted to be self-reliant and reduce dependence on others. Committing to this principle led Jefferson to reinforce his sense of personal agency over his life. He took action, figured things out on his own, developed confidence to repeat the cycle and became proficient in across a number of domains as a result. His rules were developed over a lifetime of personal experience and learning.
It’s not just countries that benefit from formalized constitutions. A founder like Jefferson shows us the value to individuals. Moreover, businesses, too, benefit from having a list of corporate values or principles set out in a mission statement. We can only develop our own satisfaction and contentedness with living by our own consciously created values. Our principles aren’t something that are merely recited. They represent a code of conduct that should be applied through our actions. Principles are the basis of our backbones. They provide a strong posture and remind us for what we stand. We don’t casually change these because an outside consultant suggests we do. We don’t flippantly turn it in for another one because we read a book or an article about someone else’s. We don’t change because of popular influence.
In our businesses, are we on the same page as to what our organization’s core principles are? In Drive, Daniel Pink offers an exercise for us to consider doing at work. Pink writes, “Hand everyone a blank three-by-five-inch card. Then ask each person to write down his or her one-sentence answer to the following question: “What is our company’s (or organization’s) purpose?” Collect the cards and read them aloud. What do they tell you? Are the answers similar, everyone aligned along a common purpose? Or are they all over the place—some people believing one thing, others something completely different, and still others without even a guess? For all the talk about culture, alignment, and mission, most organizations do a pretty shabby job of assessing this aspect of their business. This simple inquiry can offer a glimpse into the soul of your enterprise. If people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, how can you expect them to be motivated to do it?”
In Your Next Five Moves, Peter Bet-David poses the following questions, “What business can succeed without people believing in it? And what business doesn’t have particular symbols, sayings, and credos that are part of its culture?” Our cultures follow our constitutions. If we don’t have firm values and principles at the root of our efforts, our culture will reflect this absence of clarity. In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott writes, “How certain am I that my team members are deeply committed to the same vision?” This isn’t just for leaders to consider. It’s for all of us. Having a corporate constitution which all staff are exposed to as well as reintroduced to regularly will help answer Scott’s question positively. Bet-David goes on to offer a consequence for groups not singing from the same song sheet, “If your team doesn’t have similar principles and values, it will never come close to reaching its full potential.” Bet-David concludes, “If you’re going to establish a culture, you have to let people know what you stand for. Have a clear code, a guiding set of principles, and make sure everyone knows, without any ambiguity, what the consequences will be for violating it.”
In the Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey invites us to ask, “Does my organization have integrity? Do we know what we stand for? Do our structures and systems reflect a basic paradigm of respect and trust? Do we have a culture of honesty?” Whether for nations, individuals, or businesses the foundational questions are similar. Who are we? What are we trying to become? What is important to us? Putting together these kinds of documents is hard work. There’s nothing easy or efficient about it. It takes time, effort, and an incredible investment of mental energy.
If we’re not deterred by the work involved, sometimes we fear the idea of standing boldly for something. We don’t want to become a target of criticism. Nations, corporations, and individuals seek to play the Swiss card of neutrality. Pete Davis in Dedicated laments, “Unfortunately, more institutions are giving up on the idea of having a shared moral culture or a shared set of expectations for participants. In place of morality, they substitute neutrality.” In our efforts to avoid controversy we err to being tolerant. We want to be seen as accepting of anything. Unfortunately, the result isn’t respect. Carl Jung observed, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” Without principles we’re left to react. We race to rationalize while retreating from reason.
Principles promote proactivity. They provide a way to prioritize. They create a decision filter against which options may be evaluated. Moreover, crafting a constitution is more than creating a directional compass. Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress writes, “It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.”
So, where can we start? We can consider using those created by others as a starting point. Here’s one from George Jean Nathan one of the co-founders of The American Spectator. Nathan offered, “My code of life and conduct is simply this: work hard, play to the allowable limit, disregard equally the good and bad opinion of others, never do a friend a dirty trick…live the moment to the utmost of its possibilities… and be satisfied with life always but never with one’s self.”
Don’t worry about creating a perfect constitution. Start with establishing a single value or principle and build from there. It can be an ongoing process as opposed to a one time event. Begin by asking some of the questions suggested above. Then consider what Susan Scott offers in Fierce Conversations, “What attitudes will lead to success in our company?” The importance of this effort is a core function of leadership. In Dedicated, Pete Davis writes, “In mission-driven institutions, leaders see their goal as guiding everyone toward serving the institution’s mission. This means constantly talking about the mission: celebrating people who advance it, admonishing people who fail to live up to it, training new members in its meaning, and assessing institutional health in terms of it. Often, that means telling participants what they should be doing.” In Die Empty, Todd Henry invites us to contemplate questions like, “What will you stand for today? What will you refuse to compromise on, no matter what? What will define your terms of engagement?… what’s truly important to you? What battle would you be willing to fight anytime for any reason?”
Going a step further, consider creating a personal or business blog with the intent of creating your own constitution and communicating it on that medium. For example, the categories of blog posts could reflect the principles of your constitution. The content of the posts would represent the detail behind your values. In your business each department could craft posts describing what a given value looks like to them in their world. The entire organization would have a repository of context and examples to draw on to understand on a much deeper level what the organization stands for and how this has been exemplified over time.
Your posts could detail where have you seen a value exemplified in a meaningful way in the past? Where were you? What were you doing? Who did you see reflect this value? The value becomes part of your constitution and the detail behind why it matters to you becomes the equivalent of what the Federalist Papers are to the US Constitution. Prior to ratifying their constitution, founders in the US prepared and published a series of essays which became known as The Federalist Papers. These essays were efforts to compel citizens to support adopting the constitution as well as to offer context behind how sections of the constitution came to be included. The essays offered the philosophy behind the principles and served as the R&D supporting the medicine. Taking the time to detail the reasons behind our mission statement and personal principles is an extra step that most of us avoid but could be of great value. Where we may have a list of core company values or even a mission statement we can invite staff to contribute writing that reflects what these values or mission statement means to them. How have they seen these in action? What does it look like when done well in their department? How do you know you’re seeing these? How do customers seem to respond when these values are reflected by staff? Where have you seen the value well expressed? Are there occasions in your work experience you’ve seen it displayed? Can you recall instances where you’ve witnessed or experienced living a value personally?
What movies or books reflect examples of your identified values being showcased? Consider organizing a book of the month club for your office. Focus on books that capture not the latest and greatest business productivity hack but on ones that capture a value shared by your organization. For example, Jon Huntsman’s Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values That We Learned as Children (but May Have Forgotten) or Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles, or Ken Blanchard’s The Power of Ethical Management. Ray Dalio’s Principles is a separate one to consider that focuses on core values that could apply for your business. Create a reading list as part of your onboarding process. Include books or articles that represent the values you are trying to live by in your business. They don’t have to be serious, non-fiction works. Perhaps, there are childhood fables that capture a value that is core to your business? Consider compiling a list of these to reinforce in a more reader friendly way why something matters for you. Do you value the “steady Eddies” in your world? If so, perhaps the Tortoise and the Hare is a fable to promote and discuss internally?
A final suggestion to help get clear about what your organization stands for is to consider the context of what motivated its origination. How did your organization come to be? In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger writes “’For any organization, it is galvanizing to have a strong purpose and values, no matter what they might be.’ A good way to surface that is by looking back to when the business was founded and asking, What was that higher purpose at the outset? And how can we rally people around that today?” Creating your constitution is a way to show your pride for your past.
Daniel Pink in Drive offers, “In 1962, Clare Boothe Luce, one of the first women to serve in the U.S. Congress, offered some advice to President John F. Kennedy. ‘A great man,’ she told him, ‘is one sentence.’ Abraham Lincoln’s sentence was: ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves.’ Franklin Roosevelt’s was: ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.’ Luce feared that Kennedy’s attention was so splintered among different priorities that his sentence risked becoming a muddled paragraph.” What one sentence represents what your business is about? To narrow down even further, consider answering a question posed by Tim Ferriss: What’s your billboard? Taking the focus angle to its extreme Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page write in One Word That Will Change Your life, “Word! We simply developed a One Word theme for the year. It became a One Word vision for everything, and it changed our lives.” However you do it, creating a constitution is about detailing what you’re for, not what you’re against. It’s not about what’s on a protestor’s placard. It’s something you use to help you look forward to a focused future. There are many roads to recognizing what is important for you and your business. Independent of the approach, it is time well spent . Happy Canada Day.