If there’s one thing we learned from the gauntlet of 2020, it’s the importance of adapting to uncertainty and exceling under adversity. Often, the key to holding together in a crisis is focus on controlling what we can control, rather than fixating on what we cannot.

While we often cannot predict what will happen to us — whether we’ll face a tough week at work, a personal challenge or a pandemic that upends our way of life — we can control our reactions to adversity and the decisions we make in response to uncertainty. In leading a team of nearly 200 people, I’ve found in times of uncertainty that it is absolutely crucial to tie decision to values — both my personal values and our company’s values.

The first step to handling what life throws at you is to first look inward and determine your core values: the principles you can use as a rubric to make challenging decisions. The more clarity you have about your core values, the more comfortable you will be about those decisions and the more confident you will be that you’ll be able to stand behind them in the future.

What Are Core Values?

Core values are the non-negotiable principles that consciously or unconsciously guide your most important decisions. Whether you know them or not, they’ve been with you for most of your life, and they often have roots in your formative childhood experiences. If you don’t know your core values, you are navigating life without a GPS. You may arrive where you want to be eventually, but only after significant trial and error.

When you do know your core values, however, the most crucial choices in life feel easier. You can weigh your options in the moment — even in moments of crisis, when all the available options feel less than ideal — and decide which one is most aligned with, or in service of, your core values.

Core values are crucial to authentic leadership. If you don’t know what’s most important to you, your approach will end up being a patchwork of other people’s best practices.

Core Values in a Crisis

Core values are crucial to making difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty and adversity. An example comes from one of my own core values and how I applied it in the early days of the pandemic.

Like most leaders, I felt we were staring down a possible existential threat to our business in the early days of the pandemic. I knew that the way our senior leaders communicated with our team would play a huge role in how we held together in the face of such grave uncertainty.

One of my core values is “respectful authenticity.” I tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. However, I also believe strongly in treating others with respect and finding a way to deliver difficult news and feedback with care and thought.

This core value helped me feel secure in our communications approach during the pandemic: We were honest with our team members about the challenges COVID-19 posed, pledged to protect as many people’s jobs as possible, and made it clear that we would not hide difficult conversations and news from our team. This approach helped our team hold together during the crisis.

While I was concerned about the pandemic, I was not afraid that I was taking the wrong approach in communicating with our team. Because the strategy was so closely tied to my personal values and our company’s values, I knew it was the right course.

Think of a time when you’ve needed to make a hard decision during a time that was challenging for yourself, your family or your organization. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to feel safe in that decision, even without being able to anticipate the outcome? This safety comes when we understand our core values and act according to them.

Identifying Your Core Values

To put yourself in a better position to handle everything life throws at you, take the time to discover your core values, and make a written list. Start by setting aside some time, putting away distractions and thinking carefully about yourself:

    • When are you happiest?
    • When are you most drained of energy?
    • What types of people and situations are most frustrating for you?

Pose these same questions to your family and close friends; often, they can provide novel insights. Putting thought into these questions will help you recognize consistent themes in your life and identify what makes you happiest. It will also help you understand which principles and values you cannot imagine betraying. They will help you understand where you need to invest your time and energy and where you might need to pull back. They will also form the basis of confident decisions, even in the face of uncertainty.

Identifying your core values is the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for anything life can throw at you. Spend some time reflecting on these principles, or find a resource that can guide you through this process. If you do this work now, it will pay off the next time you face a challenge.