Living One’s Values

“Values are inspiring when read, but most powerful when lived.”

Many organizations have values. You can find these values on posters plastered on walls throughout the corporate headquarters or prominently displayed on the organization’s website. These values can inspire when you read them, but values matter most when adhered to. When a leader or a team stays true to their values in tough times, those actions are not only inspirational but also powerful.

It is easy to be true to one’s values when times are good. When there are sunny skies, and everything is going your way. It is much harder to be true to one’s values in difficult times. It is difficult to stay on the right path when people are trying to tell you it is OK to go against what you believe or to take an easier path to save your skin.

It is useful to look for examples of those leaders who remained true to their values even in tough times. Leaders like this can inspire us to also be strong and not give in. I would like to cite a few examples.

The Credo

Robert Wood Johnson developed the Johnson and Johnson Credo in 1943 and updated it in 1948. The J&J Credo was a document, several paragraphs long, that outlined the J&J values and spoke to what J&J stood for.

James Burke took over as CEO of Johnson and Johnson in 1976. Burke had the impression that the credo that Robert Wood Johnson developed became a relic that no one within J&J paid attention to.  Shortly after taking the reins of J&J, he organized a business retreat for his senior leadership team. Burke told his team that the purpose of the gathering was to examine the J&J Credo and he let them know there would be one of three possible outcomes. The credo would be revised, kept as is, or discarded.  As it turned out, the leadership team made only minor revisions to the original credo. Once that was accomplished Burke committed that every member of J&J would stand by the values espoused in the credo from the CEO himself right down to the lowest-ranking employee within the J&J organization.

Burke spent the next several years traveling throughout the organization explaining the values found in the credo and insisting that every employee stay true to those values no matter the cost.

Then strategy struck and Burke himself was put to the test. In 1982 7 deaths in the Chicago area were linked to people taking Tylenol that was found to be laced with Cyanide. Investigations proved that the poison was not placed on the tablets in the factories but rather in the retail stores. People in the Chicago area and across the country were in a panic as every news agency headlined the story. Police and even the Boy Scouts in the Chicago area went door to door informing people to dispose of their Tylenol.

Burke huddled with his senior leadership team to decide what action to take. The FBI and other agencies recommended that J&J not take the drastic measure of removing Tylenol from all retail outlets across the country. They believed this was a regional crime.  Burke thought otherwise. He factored in the values found in the J&J Credo to make his decision. The first line of the credo reads, “We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors, and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services”.

With that in mind, Burke decided to remove every bottle of Tylenol from all retail outlets across the country. Burke removed 31 million bottles from the shelves of stores across the country at a cost to J&J of approximately $100 million. Business analysts predicted the Tylenol brand was dead and it would never be seen in stores again.

Burke remained true to the J&J Credo and the corporate values. He said he had no choice but to make the decision he made. He and the company would lose all credibility if he did otherwise. That is a humble response. Executives of lesser metal probably would have caved and drifted away from their values and what they knew was right due to stockholder and business pressure.

Burke’s decision proved to be a good one on several fronts. He displayed great character in the face of a tragic situation. He stayed true to his company’s values. Even some good came out of this tragedy. J&J developed tamper-proof packaging that is now the standard across the industry. In terms of the business outcome, Tylenol regained 80% of its market share within 3 months after the incident. The Tylenol brand did not die and is still one of the most popular over-the-counter medications today.

What Do Values Have to Do with Winning?

National Football Foundation Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz might be best known for coaching Notre Dame to a national championship but perhaps one of his finest moments occurred in his first year coaching the Arkansas Razorbacks during the 1977 season.

Arkansas earned a spot in the Orange Bowl after a 10-1 season against the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners who were also 10-1. The game was played on January 2, 1978.

Holtz made headlines before the game for suspending three players for violating the team rules. Holtz had three team rules which were essentially team values. They were 1) Do what’s right, 2) Do the best you can, 3) Show people you care. Although Holtz did not get into details, he said the players violated the “do what is right” rule. Two of the three players Holtz suspended, including the starting running back and starting wide receiver, accounted for 78% of the team’s points during the season.

Holtz faced tremendous pressure to overlook the infraction of the team’s values and reverse the suspension from many fronts including the University administration, alumni, and the media. He was not only in very real danger of losing his job but also losing his career in coaching due to his position of standing firm on team values. The three players even took Holtz to court over the matter seeking an injunction so they could play. The court upheld Holt’s position on the eve of the big game.

Arkansas was an 18-point underdog before the suspensions. After the suspensions, they were given as 24-point underdogs by Las Vegas oddsmakers. According to Holtz, the players on his team were despondent and demoralized before the game. The team believed they were going to lose badly. In desperation, Holtz called a team meeting. He told the team that if they believed what everyone was saying, including the media, they should not even play the game because everyone thought they were going to lose. Searching for some type of spark, Holtz told the players he was tired of hearing about the great players from Oklahoma who were going to play and the great players from Arkansas who were not going to play. He said that he knew from reading the papers why Arkansas couldn’t win. Then he asked the player, “Why can we win”?

The players were quiet at first. Then one player spoke up touting the outstanding defense Arkansas had. Then other players began to speak up emphasizing why they could win. By the time the meeting was over, the players were fired up and they believed they could go out and defeat the Oklahoma Sooners.

On game day, backup running back Roland Sales rushed 22 times for 205 yards, an Orange Bowl record; he also caught four passes for 52 yards and rushed for two touchdowns. Arkansas defeated Oklahoma 31–6. Sales’ Orange Bowl rushing record stood for twenty years.

After the game, Holtz gained national prominence and before he knew it, almost every corporation in the country began to ask Holtz to come to their company to speak about the importance of values and the impact they have on building a winning organization.

Values Should Guide Decisions

On June 25th, 1993, Todd Tobias was appointed the new Chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly and Co., a major pharmaceutical company. Before this role, he served as the Vice Chairman of AT&T. Just three days into his tenure, Tobias faced a significant crisis involving a clinical trial for FIAU (fialuridine), a drug being tested for hepatitis B treatment. One of the trial participants had developed profound liver failure and needed to be hospitalized, while several others showed signs of severe liver toxicity and were in critical condition.

In response to this crisis, Tobias convened a meeting with his senior leadership team, including lawyers, scientists, and public relations professionals. During this meeting, he expressed his confidence in their capabilities to manage the situation and assured them he would not interfere. However, he offered a crucial piece of guidance: the primary focus should be on the well-being of the patients and their families. He emphasized that their health and safety should drive all decisions, not just because it was a responsibility, but because it was the ethical thing to do.

This statement resonated deeply with his team, earning their respect and trust. It demonstrated that Tobias was not only committed to the company’s core values of people, integrity, and excellence but also willing to embody those values through his actions. By providing clear ethical boundaries while avoiding micromanagement, Tobias effectively led his team through the crisis, reinforcing a culture of compassion and responsibility within the organization.

The Person in the Mirror

I have a friend from Lithuania who recently ran for the presidency in Lithuania. He was an outsider in Lithuanian politics, but he is a patriot and believed he could lead Lithuania into the future.  He was new to politics and some consultants within his party advised him to take certain stands and do things that went against his values. He decided to stay true to his values.

As it turned out he lost the election. When I spoke to him on a Zoom call about three weeks after the election, I asked him what he learned from the experience. Knowing him as I do his response did not surprise me. He told me that his biggest learning was the importance of staying firm on one’s beliefs and values. He did not mortgage his values to get ahead. People knew what he stood for and knew they could trust him. More importantly, he could look at himself in the mirror after the election and know he did not cave under pressure. He remained accountable to the person who mattered – himself.

Values are Vital

We must take the time to identify our values. Values are crucial because they serve as guiding principles that influence our behavior, decisions, and interactions with others. Values provide direction in our lives, serve as a moral compass, and should serve as an important factor in our decision-making.

Identifying our values is an important step, but once we have identified our values, we must make a commitment to stay true to them, and for some people that is the hard part.


About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and is an international and Fortune 500 speaker. Learn more about John at https://johngronski.com/

Continue To Learn

Visit John Gronski’s website, JohnGronski.com to access free leadership development resources including a downloadable leadership pamphlet, John’s YouTube Channel, and John’s leadership blog.

There are also leadership development resources you can invest in by going to Store.LeaderGrove.com – You can purchase John’s books which include “Iron-Sharpened Leader” and “The Ride of Our Lives”. John created a great online leadership development program. You can purchase online leadership development courses including Cultivating Trust, Introduction to Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Management, and Introduction to Change Leadership. Once you complete a course, take a short quiz, attain an 80% score, and download a certificate of completion.



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