The Difference Between Ideology and Core Values


I sit in a lot of meetings, read a lot of books, and spend time on social media platforms like twitter to get my daily news. Through these mediums, I have found that there is a difference between ideology and core values that are seldom understood and often confused with one another. The goal of this post is to clarify the difference and provide examples.

Let’s start with core values. Core values are essential for leaders who are looking to make change in our world. They are general principles that guide a leaders conduct and decision-making. Core values inherently have humility and an understanding that issues are rarely “black or white”. In other words, core values are an approach to issues and are designed to be applied to any situation as a guide.

For example, let us say that one of your core values is to put the employees interest first. You can use this core value as a lens to guide your thinking and decide between a variety of options. If the company is facing a down quarter, do you consider layoffs, dip into a rainy day fund, or borrow money? If your core value is people first, you may consider the second and third option more seriously. However, your values may say that the company is over staffed and the long-term interest of its employees rests on laying off unneeded positions that are weighing the company down.

Regardless of the ultimate decision in this example, core values allow leaders to make decisions within a context that they have previously, pre-crisis, identified as important.

Core values allows a leader to navigate issues in a prioritized way, considering nuances and thinking deeply.

Leaders with an ideology are often confused with having core values but that is not correct – one does not necessarily correlate with the other. An ideology is a set of rigid beliefs that can limit options and constrict decision making into the small box of dogma.

Unfortunately, some of the best examples of ideology are seen in politics and often tied to identity. For example, partisans (Democrats and Republicans) often accept the party line and promulgate it, sharing distributed talking points on social media. At times, if a political opponent proposes a good idea, it is immediately spun and rejected, if a political ally proposes a bad idea, it is welcomed and elevated. If an idea from any source, even a good one, falls outside the acceptable ideology it is ridiculed and rejected.

Dr. Frances Lee from the University of Maryland discusses the issues with ideology and partisanship in its impact on the US Presidency. In her research, she finds that often the members of Congress not in the President’s party oppose any proposal by the President simply because giving the President a “win” would hurt them politically.

However, if they were guided by core values, and not ideology, perhaps Congress would be better able to put together workable plans to address some of our country’s greatest needs. Being guided by core values would allow legislators to guided by principles that indicate where compromise is acceptable and allow for creativity and consideration of many options, rather than dismissing trade-offs completely. Ideology does not allow compromise because it is understood as morally superior.

The concept reaches far beyond the world of politics. In business, leaders can also get stuck on an ideology. Sticking to a business model as the environment and technology change is its own form of run-away ideology. Blockbuster and Kodak come to minds as example companies that couldn’t adapt because of how much they believed in their business model.

The world is increasingly complicated. Limiting a decision to an ideology oversimplifies complexity and can create tribal politics in organizations or groups. Core values embrace complexity, allow for explanation, and maintains proactivity.

What are your core values? How do they play out in your work? In how you treat others? In how you approach difficult decisions?

Please let me know so that we can continue the discussion!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Core values are essential for leaders to aid in navigating tough decisions proactively. Ideology can be dangerous in limiting decisions to pre-conceived notions and dogmas. How do you define your core values and how do they help you set priorities and make decisions?