The Difference Between Ideology and Core Values

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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?

Book Review: The Starbucks Experience

Joseph Michelli is a talented author who has written about many companies that have developed systems and processes to deliver exceptional customer experiences in a consistent and reliable manner.

So when he featured Starbucks, I couldn’t wait to read it. Despite (for the most part) giving up coffee approximately 4 months ago, I still look for excuses to take meetings at Starbucks. I am a big fan of Starbucks’ founder and former CEO Howard Schultz (and possible 2020 Presidential candidate), who has written two books himself about Starbucks, Pour Your Heart Into It and Onward.

the starbucks experienceI love having meetings at Starbucks because after reading Schultz two books, I admire how his vision became a reality. Schultz changed both how we consume coffee, which previously viewed as a 10 cent commodity, and how the coffee shop became the “third place”, or a regular hangout besides home or work, for many people. Starbucks is now just as Schultz had imagined it, in all its reality and splendor. But, to get there, it wasn’t easy.

Putting aside Schultz’s personal struggles in creating the Starbucks we know today (you can read his books to get the inside scoop), creating the systems and processes to implement the customer experience he wanted to create was especially difficult because because of the hyper-customized nature of Starbucks’ drinks. The design of the product and the experience made scripting and rigorous memorization both useless and impossible.

Starbucks designed a system is called the “Five Ways of Being” to implement the customer experience:

  • Be welcoming
  • Be genuine
  • Be considerate
  • Be knowledgeable
  • Be involved

To support the system, Starbucks’ key processes are articulated in the “Green Apron Book”, which every Starbucks partner (the internal Starbucks jargon for employees) carries around with them.

Starbucks leadership understands that when it comes to delivering a consistent, reliable, and, at times, an exceptional experience, their main audience is the staff, not the customer buying the coffee. Starbucks actively markets to its employees in a manner that emphasizes and reinforces the “Five Ways of Being”.

Examples of this include using real-life mistakes that have happened in the past and asking partners to articulate how some of the strategies in the Green Apron Book could have prevented the error. Further, baristas receive regular updates in a newsletter called “Conversations and Connections”, which share customer stories and how the stories reflect the Five Ways of Being. Finally, Starbucks uses a board game to help train partners in how to empathize with customers based on their body language and subtle verbal cues to better anticipate and meet the customers’ needs.

These examples also reflect Schultz’s mantra, “Retail is detail”. In Starbucks, there are very few accidents from the way the stores are laid out to how the drinks are made. One of the goals of Starbucks leadership is for people who are traveling to find a familiar experience at both their regular Starbucks and the one they are visiting on the road. To bring this idea to reality, Starbucks sweat the details of hiring, training, empowering and establishing regular reminders for the team.

Next time you go to Starbucks, look for the attention to detail in the experience. In Onward Schultz articulated how the smell of Starbucks is a vital part of the experience. This is just one example of the types of details that get the attention of, and are then implemented by, great companies.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Starbucks is famous for their environment and service. Starbucks has a clear vision, system, and processes that are as consistent, reliable, and as high a quality as their product. Starbucks actively markets to their team to bring Schultz’s vision to life every day by paying attention to the details. 


The Starbucks Experience is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount)

Systems and Processes

A few weeks back I wrote about the importance and power of having a well-defined vision. While it is necessary to craft a vision statement that people can understand and follow, that in itself is not sufficient.

Without a way to bring the vision to life that can be understood and acted upon by others, the leader is in essence the pilot of a plane with no stairs or jetway to actually get followers on board or let alone any fuel to get it moving towards its envisioned destination.

Systems and processes are the ways to get people on board and collectively helping reach the envisioned destination.

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Some people in formal leadership roles think that directives are all it takes to get people to do what they say. If only it were that simple, leadership would be far easier. Instead a far more complicated and nuanced approach is necessary, one that combines the best of psychology, marketing, discipline, and repetition.

I think these two quotes from Kevin Kelly sum up the idea of balance between vision and empowerment well:

“The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control” -Kevin Kelly (from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell)

Without some element of governance from the top, bottom-up control will freeze when options are many. Without some element of leadership, the many at the bottom will be paralyzed with choices.” – Kevin Kelly

In excellent service-oriented businesses, systems and processes are designed to make sure that the directives from the “command” part of the organization are followed in a customized and adaptable manner at the customer level. Under this model, being “in command” means setting a vision and creating systems that are memorable, exciting followers to achieve the vision, while empowering them with the autonomy to adapt processes and customizing approaches that align with the vision.

Football provides a helpful example: San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh is credited for creating an offensive system called, “The West Coast Offense”.

The basic system for the West Coast Offense was clear and memorable to everyone, “Control the ball through the short pass, always looking for the big play.”

The West Coast Offense is the system. The coaches and players created processes to make the system work. The video above shares the intentional processes needed to be successful in making the West Coast Offense work.

In the video, players describe Bill Walsh’s obsession with the quarterback’s (QB) footwork. Each play was timed by the QB’s footwork. For instance, when the play called for the QB to drop back 3-steps, the QB had to complete those three steps at the right cadence, because if he moved too quickly, the wide receiver (WR) would not be open yet to catch a pass. On the other hand, if the QB moved too slowly, the WR would be covered again and would still not be open to catch the pass. The QB’s steps were part of a process that made sure the QB and the WR were able to connect and communicate during the course of the game.

Walsh famously scripted the first dozen or so plays of every game, creating additional processes for his players to implement to further the success of his West Coast Offens system.

While Walsh was incredibly involved in the planning aspect of the work, he never was out on the field playing. He needed the plays and nuances (processes) to work in a way that the players could follow and execute. The processes were only viable because Walsh had the vision (win a Super Bowl), a system (the West Coast Offense), and processes (QB footwork, practices, scripting plays etc). All three of these aspects are not only important, but necessary for excellence.

Too many organizations in the service sector begin immediately with process and control through scripting without establishing the vision or system. For the front line team members, all this creates is a very long script of disparate tasks that seem isolated due to a lack of a system and therefore difficult to remember. So much more is possible through establishing direction, a clear system or philosophy to reach that direction, and empowerment.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Start with vision, then move to systems, then processes. Leaders in business often must be in command to meet objectives, but cannot create a service-oriented culture through processes alone. Empowerment is essential to creating processes that work and are sustainable. 

Book Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Dan Cowens, another Maryland EMBA Alumnus and CEO and Founder of Snag-a-slip, recommended The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Dan described it as essential reading for any entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur.

The book absolutely lived up to its billing. The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a combination memoir and practical advice from someone who has experienced tremendous successes (Netscape browser) and very real setbacks (Loudcloud surviving the tech bubble burst).

While I am not currently an entrepreneur currently, nor an aspiring one, I have taken on several professional roles of an “intrapreneur”, or someone that is starting up new functions within an existing company. When I took over as Executive Director of Operations for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, the entity was only 2 years old. It was floundering and required a speedy turnaround. Our leadership team had to stand up a viable infrastructure while not only keeping operations going, but improving them as well.

The hard thing about hard things

For our leadership team, the expression, “building the plane while flying it” was very real. In other words, we knew we had to improve short term results without sacrificing the longer-term sustainability of the organization.

My current role is also brand-new and intrapreneurial: Aligning, coordinating, and overseeing Adventist HealthCare’s system for delivering a world-class patient and family experience. As it stands now, the department is new and small from both an employee and revenue standpoint.

Horowitz gives expert advice rooted in many different experiences about how to produce short term results while building an organization for the long-haul. The book contains advice about how to lead through difficult times, how to build a sustainable organization, advanced leadership skills, and organizational growth.

The most practical part of the book is Chapter 6: “Concerning the Going Concern” as I believe these lessons carry across all businesses. In this chapter, he gets to the important information on how to develop people, develop culture, and develop foundational business practices.

My favorite part of this chapter involves his definition of “process”. Horowitz writes, “The purpose of process is communication” (p.190). From this definition, which is clear and compelling, he illustrates how to go about creating a viable process for a given function. The steps greatly simplify the purpose and work required to develop a process that accomplishes its intended result.

Horowitz’s lessons in The Hard Thing About Hard Things are important for all business people, but especially those who don’t mind (or enjoy) building something new and building it right.

KEY TAKEAWAY: All business leaders can learn from the lessons of entrepreneurs, particularly those looking to create change, either within an existing company or starting a brand new one. One important lesson is to create processes that align to communicating for an intended purpose.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things is available for purchase on Amazon for $29.99 (does not include Prime discount)