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Core Values, Leadership, and History

What do core values, leadership, and history have in common?

With a strong set of core values, there is literally nothing that can stop you or your company. Not even a massive, oppressive empire bent on your utter destruction. Confused? You probably should be, so let me clarify with a story.

Our story begins in the ancient city of Athens, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, theater, and many of the subjects and foundational innovations we know of today. Now that was a society with a strong set of core values. Values that included an obsession with learning and understanding the world better, a love of sport and competition, a strong emphasis on teamwork and community, and a fierce dedication to a cause greater than themselves. But the strongest and most significant value they shared was a fanatical, almost suicidal dedication to freedom. Never was that more evident than during early democracy’s greatest crisis – the Persian Wars.

Reference point for you non-history nerds: Remember the movie “300” with Leonidas and his 300 Spartans? This was about 10 years before that – and just as epic.

In 490 B.C., the Greek culture, and Athens, more specifically, faced a monumental challenge to their core values, particularly as a free democratic society. One that threatened their very existence. During the first Persian War as it was known, the Persians invaded Greece in retaliation for supporting a group of freedom fighters trying to shed the oppressive Persian menace in the Persian-controlled lands of Ionia (a region in modern day Turkey). Led by King Darius’ most trusted and effective generals, the Persians sailed and then marched their way towards Athens, destroying many Greek city-states along the way. Persia demanded that Athens pay tribute and submit completely to Darius, King of Persia, or else face complete annihilation. Athens’ options were few, and none looked promising. On the one hand, they could stand and fight the Persians at home in order to defend their freedom and their homeland. But that was suicide – the Persian army was the largest the world had ever seen. They were nearly unbeaten in battle, and they outnumbered the Greeks by anywhere from two to fifteen to one. Additionally, no city state answered their call for help so Athens was totally alone. On the other hand, the Athenians could submit and lose their freedom. After some soul searching and a last ditch desperate attempt to rally help from Sparta, the Athenians decided that a life lived in bondage and without freedom was not worth it. So they refused the Persians, killing the messenger to make their intentions clear. Talk about guts! These people were serious about freedom. It colored their entire world, providing a framework for making decisions. It was a part of them, buried deep within their bones, and it guided their every move.

Of course the Persians did not like that, and decided to teach Athens a lesson. So they marched on the defiant city-state, ultimately setting up camp on a plain called Marathon about 26 miles from Athens by the coast. The Athenians, realizing that no help was coming, set out for the plain as well, blocking the path towards the city in a final stand. They were tremendously outnumbered and the five day standoff between the two armies was certainly agonizing. Finally, on the fifth day, the Athenians knew they could wait no longer. Not only did each day risk losing the city to Persian spies and agents operating in Athens, but they decided that their only chance for victory was to take on the Persians on their own terms with the element of surprise.

No one expected Athens to take the offensive, but on the morning of the fifth day Athens charged the Persian camp sending the foreigners scrambling to defend themselves. The Athenians had even developed a special new tactic just for the occasion. In what is now a hallmark of any tactical training and still taught at West Point today, the Athenians executed the first ever recorded use of the double envelopment strategy, a pincer-like movement that envelopes the enemy from two sides. Basically, the Athenians weakened the center of their battle line (typically the strongest part of an ancient army) and strengthened the wings. As a result, when the Persians began making headway against the center of the Greek formation, they thought they had won the day and so pushed on with blind ferocity. However, the strengthened Greek flanks suddenly turned inward and easily crushed the already weaker, overwhelmed flanks of the Persian forces, encircling the Persian center and closing in for the kill. It was absolutely disastrous for the Persians. All their best troops, the strongest part of their army, became completely surrounded. Soon, as the Athenians closed in around them, crushing them between their flanks, the Persian soldiers found themselves without room to fight back. The Persian army was routed and those who could escape ran to their ships, which were docked on the beach.

Without such an innovative tactic and the audacity of the Athenian soldiers to take the offensive on an open plain against a much larger foe, they never could have hoped to win that battle. But they did. And they won because they could rally around a strong set of core values. On one hand, their passion and commitment to (1) freedom and the (2) greater good of Athens gave them the courage and determination to attempt the impossible. On the other hand, their (3) fierce love of learning and (4) emphasis on teamwork, enhanced by their (5) competitive spirit, gave them the tools they needed to pull it off.

Innovation comes from learning and a knowledge of yourself, your competitors, and your environment. The double envelopment tactic was a perfect example of such innovation.

First, the Athenians understood themselves.

They knew that their advantage lay in close combat due to their heavy armor, and the efficient teamwork of the phalanx formation. But they also knew that those strengths also made them slow and vulnerable to flanking maneuvers on the wings by faster, more lightly armored troops like the Persians. So they needed to engage the enemy up close and they needed to do it quickly.

They knew that their advantage lay in close combat due to their heavy armor, and the efficient teamwork of the phalanx formation. But they also knew that those strengths also made them slow and vulnerable to flanking maneuvers on the wings by faster, more lightly armored troops like the Persians. So they needed to engage the enemy up close and they needed to do it quickly.

Additionally, the Athenians knew their competitor.

The Athenians knew that the Persian strengths lay in their overwhelming numbers and their speed while their weakness was their lack of armor. The Athenians also understood the Persian strategy and organization of putting their best and greatest number of troops in the center of their formation. So again they needed to engage the enemy up close and quickly, but they also had to contend with the overwhelming number of Persians in the center.

The Athenians knew that the Persian strengths lay in their overwhelming numbers and their speed while their weakness was their lack of armor. The Athenians also understood the Persian strategy and organization of putting their best and greatest number of troops in the center of their formation. So again they needed to engage the enemy up close and quickly, but they also had to contend with the overwhelming number of Persians in the center.

Finally, the Athenians understood their environment.

They knew that Persian spies were eroding the will of the people at home with each day that passed. They also knew that they needed the element of surprise or else the massive hordes of the Persian Empire would overwhelm them on the open plain. So the Athenians needed to contain the Persians and turn their numbers against them. The result of all this learning and knowledge was the innovative tactic that helped them win the day.

But it’s one thing to design a new, innovative tactic; it’s another matter entirely to execute it. That’s where the Athenians’ emphasis on teamwork came into play. Without the phalanx formation used by the Athenians in the battle, this tactic would probably not have worked very well. But it was built upon teamwork and coordinated, unified efforts in the heat of battle specifically to accommodate Athens’ focus on teamwork. The phalanx and the structure of the Greek army was entirely dependent on such characteristics. In fact, this style of combat was almost totally unique to the extraordinarily team-oriented Greek armies. It worked by organizing the troops into many blocks of soldiers arranged in lines typically about 8-16 men deep and 10 men across. They wore heavy armor and shields, which afforded strong protection, but slowed them down and made teamwork and coordination absolutely crucial.

Additionally, each man was responsible for protecting the exposed right side of the man to his left while the soldier depended on his own neighbor for protection. Any gap in the wall of shields would result in the whole section of troops being exposed, putting the line, and consequently the army, at great risk of breaking. So they drilled constantly on formations, maneuvers, and working together to the point that they were as coordinated as the fingers on your hand. In fact, the term phalanx comes from the Greek word phalanges, meaning fingers or toes. They literally sought to become one body to the point that each part was like a finger on the same hand. This kind of attitude was even reflected in other areas of Greek life, like Democracy, the epitome of collaboration.

Thus, teamwork was undoubtedly an important core value in ancient Greek life, and it was equally significant in the Athenians’ monumental victory against the Persians at Marathon. Magnified by their love of adrenaline-soaked competition, the Athenians fielded one of the most formidable fighting forces in history. But none of this would have been possible without the strong set of core values adopted by the Athenians. It was their understanding and unity around a core set of beliefs that produced the winning culture capable of defeating the greatest empire of the ancient world to that point.

However, though the Athenians had routed the Persians on the plain of Marathon, the battle was not yet over. The Persians that had managed to escape to their ships were not keen on giving up so quickly. They had traveled a great distance to a foreign land only to be humiliated by what most in the Persian Empire thought to be a tiny, insignificant, unorganized excuse for an opponent. But an easy victory it was not. Instead, they sailed their ships around to Athens in an attempt to beat the Athenian army back to Athens to take the city while it was undefended. They also hoped that the sight of Persian sails on the horizon would incite panic in the people of Athens and allow their spies to take hold of the city and hand it over for surrender.

With this scene unfolding before them, the Greeks realized they needed to get a message back to Athens before the Persians got there. They needed to tell the people, “Hold on! Help is coming! We won the battle, don’t surrender!” For this important mission they chose a soldier, an Olympic champion named Philippides, to carry the message back to Athens. So off he ran, despite having fought through the entire battle. When he reached the gates of Athens, legend says that he was only able to utter one word, “Nenikekamen” a word derived from “Nike” (the winged goddess of victory), before he collapsed and died of exhaustion. This rallied the citizens and secured the fate of Athens until a little while later the entire Athenian army arrived from it’s own Marathon, exhausted but determined to defend their beloved city to the death. At this point, the Persians knew the war was over and they turned around to sail back to Persia.

Yet another story of incredible valor and sacrifice in pursuit of a cause greater than oneself. Philippides’ heroic efforts, and those of the entire army, were undoubtedly driven by the instinctual protection of those values they held most dear. Values that included an obsession with learning and knowledge, a love of competition, a strong emphasis on teamwork, a fierce dedication to a cause greater than oneself, and above all, a suicidal dedication to freedom. This was the culture of Athens. A culture with its values so ingrained in the hearts and minds of its people that it was capable of achieving the impossible.

And ever since, Athens has been known as the pioneer of democracy, the epitome of enlightened society, the poster-boy of freedom, and the pinnacle of what Western Civilization ought to be. That is their brand. The things that came out of that time period immediately following the Battle of Marathon and the Persian Wars (called the Golden Age of Greece), are truly mind blowing. They either founded or significantly advanced most every major field of study including military tactics, history, theater and the dramatic arts, math, science, political science, rhetoric, and a framework for advanced education to enhance learning and more effectively cultivate knowledge. In almost every respect, Classical Greece became the standard to which every Western government, nation or state has aspired in the last 2,500 years. Now that’s a powerful brand! And all because they fostered a culture of incredibly strong commitment to their core values, especially that of freedom and its inextricable link to learning and advancement. A culture whose impact on the world remains to this day, thousands of years later, as one of the most powerful and influential forces in human history.

So, the questions is this: Do you want to be epic? Do you want to leave a legacy like that of Philippides and the Athenians? Or do you want to settle for being “mediocre”? I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to build a legacy that changes the landscape of people’s lives rather than one that ascends to a plateau of mediocrity.

And it all starts with core values.

What Are Core Values?

People often use the phrase, but exactly what are core values?

Before we answer the question, “what are core values”, we first need some context.

What are the two worst words in the English language? What are the two words you never want to hear about yourself or anything you are associated with? Well, I’d be willing to bet that many people, especially business people, would agree that the two worst words are “mediocre” and “plateau.” I mean, who wakes up in the morning or goes to work

what are core values

What are the two worst words in the English language?

What are the two words you never want to hear about yourself or anything you are associated with?

Well, I’d be willing to bet that many people, especially business people, would agree that the two worst words are “mediocre” and “plateau.” I mean, who wakes up in the morning or goes to work everyday with a smile saying, “Boy, I just can’t wait to be mediocre today!” Nobody! We are human beings – we are hardwired to want more than that.

People long for meaning and purpose. We all want to be remembered. We all want to leave a legacy and become people worth remembering, but mediocre lives and plateaued potential are not the building blocks of a lasting legacy.

So how do you prevent yourself from becoming stagnant and falling into mediocrity? Everyone has been there at some point. But how do we continually motivate ourselves to work harder? Guide ourselves to become better?

The answer is simple. Core values.

Core values are how we fight mediocrity. Knowing and fully embracing our own unique set of core values is the key to sustaining motivation, creativity, and innovation for the long-term, whether personally or in the business world.

But what are core values and what do they mean to us as individuals?

What Are Core Values?

  • Those principles of behavior which we hold most dear.
  • They are our internal compass.
  • Core values are the lens through which we evaluate the world and make decisions.
  • They tell us what is important and what is not.
  • It’s core values that tell us what kind of legacy we want to leave.
  • They cast a vision, but they also provide the blueprint for how to reach that vision; that is, if we are intentional about adhering to them.

 

We all want to leave our mark on the world and we maximize the size of that mark, that legacy, by living out our core values. Not only that, but we are always happiest when we are living according to those values because they are the characteristics that we believe represent the best version of ourselves.

In short, core values form the basis of our identity. They are our guide to a life worth living and a life worth remembering.

There is no greater source of power or motivation than that.

What are Core Values for Companies?

In fact, companies would do well to remember it because companies are no different. After all, companies are not unknown ethereal entities, they are just a collection of people. And core values are powerful tools for companies because they tap into the identity and the desired legacy of its people. If created and implemented properly, a strong set of core values will create and sustain motivation, enhance creativity and innovation, and self-impose the most effective processes, procedures, and rules necessary for the enduring success of the business.

In the business context, core values help us ensure that the decisions being made each and every day at all levels of the business are coordinated and consistent with a shared set of desired principles. Implementation of these values enhances our momentum and our effectiveness.

Core values also provide a great framework for developing a common culture. One that employees can bond over and strive to create together. It gives them a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves while also developing a system of self-regulating behavior.

Finally, core values are the epicenter of your brand. Strong brands are built from the inside out and focused on a core set of common beliefs and commitments known as – you guessed it – core values. They help a company communicate their brand to the rest of the world, letting potential and current customers know what they stand for and what they can expect from the company and its employees. Thus core values influence decision making, which builds culture, which in turn cultivates strong brands of both the personal and corporate nature.

We hope this helps you understand and answer the question “What are core values”. For a complete list of core values, you can check out this page here.