Interests vs. Values

The greatest test of an organisation or individual’s core values is when a choice between one’s values and one’s interest is required. It is very easy to document and preach core values which are laudable in intent. It also very easy to brand individuals or organisations as hypocrites when these laudable values are subordinated to interests. The reality however is that nothing in life is that simple, or that black and white. This is where leadership is most important.

Let us take a current and live example. You are the CEO of a Trinidad and Tobago based Fortune 500 company with global operations. Among your core values are building successful societies, integrity and professionalism. Following the Iran accord, your company, along with many others, invest in the Iranian market and in the ensuing years build up a respectable business with over 150 employees and sales of 200 million dollars. Following the US decision to unilaterally withdraw from the accord, you are advised that if you maintain your presence in Iran, your company will lose access to the US economy. Your company’s sales to the US exceed 3 billion dollars. What do you do?

Your value system would require that you maintain your involvement in Iran and the many loyal stakeholders you have acquired over the years. If you do, then the loss of access to the US market will result in not just loss of sales, but also profits and ultimately jobs. Isn’t there a responsibility to those people as well?

The reality is that there is no right answer. This is a no win situation. But the truth is, this is the situation that most leaders will find themselves in, at some point in time. Values and interests do not operate in a bubble. These values and interests intersect with other values and interests daily. A good leader cannot be blind to the impact of value based decisions on interests. To say that the decision should be made for the “greater good” might sound trite but is what it might ultimately come down to.

Does this mean that core values are irrelevant? I think they are more important than ever before, even if for any given decision, interests may have to supersede these values. Core values are an individual’s or company’s northern star. The lens through which all decisions are filtered. There will not be many occasions in which interests must trump values. Though when that happens, it may mean that there exists one omnipresent but often unstated core value and that is SURVIVAL.

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