Tanzanian distance runner John Stephen Akhwari ran the marathon in the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics. At about the 18-mile mark, he was feeling the effects of the high altitude, fell hard, banged up his knee and shoulder, and started bleeding. Eventually, he got up and started walking. He tried to jog a bit. People on the sides of the streets were telling him he needed to stop, he needed to get some medical attention, but he kept going.

More than an hour after the marathon winner had crossed the finish line, Akhwari limped into the Olympic stadium.

Eventually, the crowd realized who he was: the last marathoner, trying to finish the race. And the crowd in unison started clapping, louder and louder.

Akhwari circled the track and finished the race. Afterward, he was asked, “Mr. Akhwari, why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you drop out of the race? Obviously you were in tremendous pain.” As a poor person from Tanzania, Akhwari looked at that person and said, “My country didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start the race, they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Akhwari is the epitome of values in action.

From Values to Non-Negotiables

For more than 20 years, I’ve been talking about the difference between “having values” and “doing values.” And I’ve told Akhwari’s story many times to illustrate the point.

Recently, though, I’ve developed a better way to drive home the importance of living your values. I call them “non-negotiables.”

Since before the turn of the century, I’ve had a list of core values. For each value, I would briefly describe what it meant to “live” those values. Pretty standard stuff.

That started to change a few years ago.

I read a couple books by football coaches and they both talked about how they had certain standards for their teams that were essentially non-negotiable. One coach called his system “Standard of Performance” and the other coach simply called them “rules.”

As I played around with this idea of creating high standards, I made the connection between what Akhwari did and what these sports coaches did. They essentially delineated and delivered the behaviors that exemplified their desired values. So instead of promoting the values, they focused on fostering the behaviors that represented those values.

Seeing this connection, I started to write down the behaviors that I personally wanted to exhibit as well as see in the people I work with. I called them “non-negotiables.”

Prior to starting this non-negotiables exercise, I had 7 core values. Now, I have 22 non-negotiables grouped into 4 categories. Here are the categories as well as 2 non-negotiables in each.

  1. Working with Clients
    1. Respond quickly and accurately
    2. Close the loop
  2. Working with Team Members
    1. Start and end on time
    2. Fix the system, not blame the person
  3. Doing Our Own Work
    1. Practice like an athlete
    2. Develop and follow systems
  4. Accelerating Personal Growth
    1. Always be curious
    2. Be trusting and trustworthy

There are several things that I really like about this focus on non-negotiables as opposed to the fluffier values.

  1. They’re about actions, not just ideas.
  2. They’re measurable, meaning, you can easily tell if someone is exhibiting them or not.
  3. You can use them in the hiring process to determine how well your candidate has historically exhibited these non-negotiables.
  4. They turn your culture into something tangible, not just “felt.”

I can be a slow learner but once something clicks, I’m all in. It took a while for my brain to see the connection between Akhwari, the sports coaches, and core values. But since I made the shift, the clarity has been game changing. Try it and let me know how it works for you.