How do our values become our values? A lot of it has to do with how/where and with whom we grew up, culture, family, religion etc. What people say, and, more important, what people do. Culture as “the way we do things around here” (there are books full of definitions what “culture” is). What gets rewarded and what gets punished. And then you either get with the program, or you do exactly the opposite. Or, after much reflection and maturing, you find a way that is truly yours that transcends and includes the initial script – while still placing you in one or multiple contexts.
This is driven from the inside, although the input often came from the outside as we grew up, and events on the outside keep providing the edges we rub ourselves against. Friction creates warmth, and this can help refine what we truly care about. And it also in turn influences the culture.
Individual role models make thing personal, they put a face to what they stand for, and they show others they are not alone. All of a sudden, it is then no longer “issue X”, it is you old friend from football, your friendly neighbor, your super competent colleague or the person you just woke up next to.
For the person standing up for their values, for who they are, for the group they represent it can be scary and lonely. “Somebody senior should…” – until you realize you already are the most senior person in the room to speak to that issue. And then you speak, voice and knees shaking perhaps, and the words might not come out quite right. But your voice is counted. And each voice counted starts tipping the balance. It shows people it is possible to speak. To show others people care. That they are not alone. That they are seen. This is not one of the outwardly glorious-looking acts of leadership. But leadership it is. And very key. Values get stronger when tested. Often, you only realize that a line was crossed when it got crossed, and you meet one of your values in defending it.
This tends to be a bit of a longer game. Everyone gets to play – few do. And if you do, you are not just playing for yourself. You are playing for everyone who is silent. They are watching though, and they might well join in next time. Or, for the first time, they might sleep better, knowing they are not alone. Cultures don’t exist in a vacuum. Groups of humans made them, and cultures can change as things change, or as topics get (re)negotiated. It is us who make these changes.
Standing up can be scary, and these moments can feel incredibly lonely. You might sustain yourself from the inside with the strength of your values, or you might not even think that far, just jumping in at that moment as something crucial got triggered, wondering how you got there after the fact. Keep going. Seek allies and support and look after yourself (this is a long game). Culture change can be slow and tedious, it is one conversation at a time. And then things start moving and the pace picks up.
And if somebody does this for you, speaks up when you couldn’t, let them know how this helped you. They might look strong on the outside (and they are for being brave enough to do), but the inside might well feel very different. In a shared culture, everyone is in this together. Your role model out there who just said or did that thing might appreciate hearing the positive effects they might not be aware of. And that can help to form a group of people who care about similar things, to nourish and support each other and to keep pushing what you care about. Nobody needs to do this alone. So get yourself out there, stand up for what you care about, and find the people already out there. This is how things change.