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Resiliency Habit # 8: Personal Operating Principles

Posted Jan 18th, 2019

9 Habits of Resilience for Highly Effective Leaders:

  1. Building Commitment to Ourselves
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. Brain Fitness: Stilling the mind, developing patience
  4. Brain Fitness: Focusing the mind
  5. Knowing Our Purpose
  6. Integrative thinking
  7. Daily Reflection
  8. Personal Operating Principles
  9. Building and Maintaining Networks | Coming Soon!

Habit #8: Personal Operating Principles

"If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day.” - Alex Noble

A Personal Operating Principle is a value lived consistently, tested under pressure and through experience.

In my Act II coaching program, where people at midlife are exploring career and life transitions, one of the first exercises I provide asks them to identify their core personal values and then to test out the degree to which they are actually living them. We all like to believe that we stand for certain things. But if we do not live them out through a range of circumstances and adversity, they are not truly ours.

Examples of these values would include:

  • Productivity and performance
  • Autonomy
  • Self- Expression
  • Emotional Intimacy
  • Learning and growth
  • Integrity, honesty
  • Optimism
  • Aesthetics
  • Service to others
  • Creativity
  • Harmony
  • Fun and humour
  • Zest and energy
  • Action-orientation
  • Organization
  • Recognition and appreciation

A useful exercise is to rate each of these values on a scale of 1-10 first on importance to you (I),and then on the degree to which you actually live them out under pressure (L).

Note the gaps (G) between the two scores and reflect on why that is. The greater the gap, the less you can claim that this value currently serves as an Operating Principle for you.

Go ahead and do the inventory now before reading any further.

Then take time to write answers to the following questions. Discuss with your partner or a close friend.

What are your 3 primary lived values?

  • How are they contributing to the quality and satisfaction levels of your life?
  • How are they impacting your close circle of family and friends?
  • How are they impacting the people you lead? your organization?

Which 1 or 2 values would you like to make into an Operating Principle?

  • How could you do that?
  • What circumstances would give you the courage and commitment to start?
  • What obstacles would you have to overcome?
  • How would you prepare for the tests?
  • How would you debrief them?
  • How would you stay true to your conviction in a sustained way?

We now know from neuroscience that interpersonal relationships profoundly affect the physical structures and processes of the brain. This means that we can either ramp up each other’s arousal levels and reactivities while we are living or working together in the midst of ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances, or we can help others to ramp them down and activate their neural capacity to regulate their own emotions.

When we are living in alignment with our values-based principles we rewire our own neural networks, bringing a calmness and clarity to ourselves which becomes permanent. With this grounding we can then listen to others and collaborate with them without “catching” their anxiety, or ambivalence. We adhere to our own Operating Principle, meet our own objectives, feel good about ourselves and create a stabilizing force in the group.

Let’s look at an example of how this works. Most people and workplaces espouse the value of Work/Life Balance. The common understanding of this value is that we direct some time each day to our personal lives, doing things we personally enjoy such as fitness, playing music or woodworking, and spending quality time with our children and partners. But wait a minute. Often organizations are governed by competing values such as” we must stay at work until we get this deadline met or this urgent assignment completed, or “we must be visually present in the office during standard business hours to be seen to be meeting our work commitment”. We then give priority to our work and we end up feeling tired, inadequate and guilty for not meeting our Balance goal.

Instead, let’s change the language and perspective. What nourishes us and creates quality of experience is energy not time. Think of life fulfillment as investing your best energy into your personal life as well as your work life. This requires honoring your genetic bio rhythm ( are you as bright as the birds in the early morning or are you a night owl? ), following the Resilience practices of changing up activity every 90-120 minutes in the daytime ultradian cycle, and making hard decisions based on your Operating Principles. You would then initiate purposeful behaviours such as going to the gym at lunch time, getting home twice a week by 6:30 pm to put your children to bed, or meeting your partner for coffee and personal conversation at 2 pm every Wednesday.

You follow this pattern consistently for 3 weeks. It gets easier. As new synapses fire together, they wire together and we build new neural pathways which allow us to feel deep satisfaction when we are living our values, and which eventually embed the new behavior into an neural groove, ie unconscious competency ( like driving a standard transmission once we have mastered the feel of it ). This will happen within 3 months. Only then do we achieve a feeling of fulfillment and create a sustainable way of living.

Organizational Operating Principles are built by individuals. Daniel Vasella is an example of such an individual. He was the Chairman and CEO of Novartis. He had a history of serious childhood illness and was separated from his family much of the time, growing up in a technically competent but cold and impersonal hospital system. These experiences, coming at a time when most of us are being nurtured by our parents and living a more or less carefree childhood, were painful and challenging. He was lonely, frightened, and in pain a lot of the time. He speaks of finally encountering one warm and kind physician who showed a genuine interest in him, and would sing him to sleep before his surgeries, of which he had many.

She transformed his experience and burned the value of compassion into his own heart. As he matured as an adult, he confirmed his core values to be compassion, competence and competition. When he assumed leadership at Novartis he embedded these same values into the organizational culture, creating a welcome alternative in the pharmaceutical world. Many of us live as if compassion and competition cannot be compatible and yet this combination can lead to a very integrated way of living.

Which Operating Principles will you live by?

  • How will they enrich your life?
  • How will they influence the organization in which you are a leader?
  • How will they influence the value system your children develop?
  • Will they create that elusive sense of peace within?
Try it. I will be most interested to hear of your experiences.


“ The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge
” Drive” by Daniel Pink

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