Four things you need to have in your head

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 29, 2010
Filed in Leadership Posts, Strategy

Have you ever had this happen to you? I was chatting with a senior leader asking him about their organisational values. “Yeh, sure, we have a set of values. Let me see, where did I put the annual report?” He then ferreted around his office to find the list of values.

There are some things we should have in our head (and in our heart and gut) while others are better just written down. We need these things in our head because, and you’ve heard this many times before, the world continues to be more complex and unpredictable. So everyday we are faced with new and unpredictable situations where decisions are needed. We wont have time to re-plan. So we will have to rely on the things in our head (our mental models, beliefs, attitudes,values) to do good things for yourself and the company. Here are four things to have in your head:

Values – we know what’s really valued in an organisation by the actions people take; especially those people with power. So lists of values such as integrity, transparency, professionalism are worthless if people can’t see them lived and when they are transgressed consequences happen. Now you can do nothing and just hope your values support your business, but that’s a high-risk strategy. As Gary Hamel once said: “Every organization is “values-driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?”

Direction – you should really understand your strategic direction otherwise how do you decide what to say “no” to. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because you know your strategy the future is crystal clear like a large painted target on the side of a barn. A useful strategic direction is less like a bulls-eye target to be hit and more like a range of desirable destinations to be discovered (on my diagram the destinations lie on the dotted line arc between the two arrows). Strategic stories are useful because they provide context, explain why and show a range of possibilities and avoid the target metaphor.


Identity – Are we local or are we global? Are we a services business or a product business? Are we more like a rolls royce or more like a mini? Knowing the business identity and the identity of your part of the business and how that compliments other identities, helps you connect and complement others inside and beyond the boundaries of the enterprise.

Purpose – I was lucky enough to have the following coincidence. One afternoon I met with the CEO of an insurance company and asked what the purpose of his business. He thought about it for a while and said, “you know what, we are here to sell insurance.” Really? Does that get your people out of bed in the morning so they can make a difference? I don’t think so. The very next day I happened to have another meeting with a second CEO of an insurance company and I asked the same question. The CEO shot back at me, “we help Australians build a privately funded safety net.” Now, that seemed more interesting. It’s true that some businesses have an obvious purpose where people really feel they are making a difference to other people’s lives. But whatever you enterprise it’s important that your purpose inspires your people to make a difference. At Anecdote our purpose is to help bring humanity back to organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that there are some things that are best written down. Following on from the ideas of David Allen and his Getting Things Done approach, projects and tasks are best written down in a trusted system so you can get these things out of your head and stop them from cluttering your mind.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Nimmy says:

    Nice article! I see a very close relationship between Values and Identity (the latter may very well be defined by the former). Similarly, I see a strong link between Purpose and Direction…(Purpose ought to set the direction)

  2. Thanks Shawn. Good piece. V

  3. Your right Nimmy, they are all interrelated. One informs the other. At the same time it’s important for leaders to consider each and really understand what each one means. The one we are debating in Anecdote at the moment is whether there are differences between principles and values.

  4. Nimmy says:

    True. I agree.
    Re. principles and values, now that you ask, I have this vague idea (I have no clue where or how I got this idea) that principles probably are driven by the mind/intelligence while values are driven by the heart/emotional evaluation. I could be totally wrong. Just a vague idea that came to me as I read your comment.

  5. G’day, thanks for the interesting post. I would add a couple of points on values.
    You need to define the values that you and your people share with your customers, so be specific about them.
    Steer clear of the meaningless, such as “open and honest” (an impossible and probably illegal standard to meet – commercial confidentiality rules etc) and integrity, which really is the value of living to your values!
    Finally, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the differences between principles and values. I think you’ll find your customers couldn’t care less about the label you want to use, just the result of their application.
    Cheers, geoff

  6. Peter Chomley says:

    Shawn, your comments and diagram re direction are spot on. Too often a (strategy) planning session defines very specific success metrics, which, if missed, cause great angst. In a complex world, defining a successful outcome as meeting or exceeding your “wave front” is a much more positive approach. I like it.

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