LEADING THROUGH VALUES – when well done is better than well said

‘It’s like washing your feet with your socks on!’ shouted out a young, Tibetan red-faced truck-driver from the back of the room. The other men laughed and the room was suddenly animated as the young man moved to the front and started to demonstrate for my benefit. The local outreach officer translated as we watched the cheeky driver pretending to wash his foot, tugging and making faces at his dirty, grey sock. He was referring, of course, to the discomfort of wearing a condom.

We were conducting a focus group on attitudes and behaviours around safe sex and STIs in Lhasa, Tibet. As a rapidly growing city with a high influx of temporary migrant populations in the booming western region of China, Lhasa was home to a population deemed ‘at risk’ of contracting and spreading HIV if the virus were to arrive.

Safe sex education was receiving a lot of resistance. There was a high prevalence of STIs among people of all ages, indicating that condoms were not being frequently or adequately worn. Local women often reported that men refused to wear condoms. These, in turn, were taking serious STIs back to their unwitting partners. The scene was perfect for an HIV epidemic – it was no laughing matter.

But at that moment, among this group of Tibetan men, the laughter and the actions of the young man frantically rubbing his feet, even I had to laugh and found it hard to not agree that wearing a condom was an unpleasant alternative.

Not long after I sat in my office feeling deflated and impotent; our workshops, training sessions and outreach efforts seemed to be changing very little. The interviews and focus groups we were conducting showed that the connection between actions, consequences and ability to do something differently was not being felt.

How could I get the young man to see his role in transmitting disease to his family? I thought back to the actions, the theatrics; the laughter, there was so much connection and understanding in that moment, all of us watching and feeling exactly what they young man meant. The moment was aesthetic, it was expressive and creative; its physicality and joyous emotion was key to everyone engaging in what the young man wanted to convey.

The reason I am sharing this story with you is because that was a decisive moment for me. It held within it values like engagement, self-expression, freedom, joy, inclusion, empathy, laughter & creativity. These are values that I realised at that moment needed to be present when trying to transform serious negative behaviours and issues. Not long after, I came back to Perth and founded Act Out and those are some of the values that we operate by in the behaviour change work we do with individuals, communities and organisations.

What are the values of your organisation? Does everyone know them? What are your own personal values? Are they aligned to those of your organisation?

The answer to theses questions can shed clarity on many of the issues experienced by organisations today.

Knowing our own values helps us identify people and situations that don’t support those values and people and situations that do; it helps to set goals and to differentiate your goals from those of others; knowing our values allows us to make decisions about important issues; in effect, knowing our own values lets us know who we are and what matters to us in and outside our organisation[1].

If you are not sure of your values, you could start by going to a website like www.values.com or http://www.selfcounseling.com/help/personalsuccess/personalvalues.html and having a look at the long list presented.

Or maybe you can think back to a time when your values became very clear to you, perhaps because they were threatened or praised. Or, like me and the laughing Tibetan with the dirty sock, you too had an understanding that came to you not from what someone said but from what they did.

If you have any stories to share about values and instances that made them very clear to you, I would love to hear from you.


[1] Evans, P & Hargreaves, D. (2010) Values-Driven Leadership, Melbourne: Tilde University Press, 18-19.