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Developing a Values Practice

Life gets in the way, doesn’t it? How often have you used that as an explanation of why something that you intended or wanted to do did not get done? As business leaders talk and think about their leadership and specific concepts of “values based leadership.”

Thanks to my little sister Sue (Simon) Pickens-Owens, I have discovered a delightful way to keep values at top of mind each day. As a Hanukah gift this year, Sue sent to me and our two sisters “The Book of Jewish Values” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

The book is organized into daily reflections with a weekly review. I proposed to my sisters that we adopt a practice of reading the daily selection of the book and exchange emails with our reactions to it. While we are just two months into this ritual, it has become a delightful “bonding” experience for us and has us “e-talking” daily!

Each entry from Telushkin’s book highlights a specific value, based on Jewish tradition and text, and explains how to practice that value in life. The topics cover daily living: greeting people on the street, giving charity, welcoming the stranger, gossip, ethical shopping, etc. By engaging in this practice – or ritual if you will – my own daily thinking and behavior is being changed.

By sharing our thoughts with each other, we actually need to pay attention to the ideas. I could see myself easily reading and forgetting each passage if I were the only one reading. However, by engaging with my sisters I now think about the ideas, decide how “I” feel about the principal, and then write a quick email note. Then I read what they have to say. Sometimes we even debate amongst ourselves. (Siblings disagreeing, perish the thought! Though the ethical-value I have learned is to disagree agreeably and never say anything that is personally hurtful.)

I really like the system the “S-Team” – our nickname for the four remaining Simon children – has adopted: 1) It is specific, the interaction requires developing our own thoughts on the value of the day, and the values are reinforced by our interactions; 2) It is all done within the modern-day life style of, to quote Thomas Friedman, “hyper-connectivity’, but instead of globally – just between the “S-Team.” This personal process leads me to suggest a “values practice” for senior leaders in any organization. The idea is to adopt in one’s “business” world a ritual or activity similar to the one we have adopted, not necessarily based on any particularly religious text (though as a jumping off point religious text might well be fine). There are many other sources for such daily ethical reflections, ie Thomas Shanks, S.J., executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University wrote a piece about asking five question every day, a sort of end-of-day self-reflection, that would help people keep ethics and values at the top of mind.

I can hear it now, “Yes Sam, I would love to do something like that, but you haven’t seen my calendar. I leave the office every day with at least a dozen urgent things on my desk ‘undone,’ and I am off to some sort of evening event.” So life gets in the way and values and ethics sit at the bottom of the pile waiting for when we have enough time. But I promise you it will be worth your time.

Just find a buddy — sibling, co-worker, spouse, anyone — and start a daily practice exchanging a thought or idea. Like me, I think you will be surprised and delighted in how your own day will become richer and more productive. And if you can’t think of anyone else just send me a note or a thought. Here is one to start with: Jewish tradition teaches that it is important to welcome the stranger in our community. Who is a stranger in terms of your business or work world that it might be important to welcome and be gracious to? Perhaps a stranger is someone who is an unscheduled intrusion into your day; what would happen if you stopped and welcomed them into your daily world with a smile?