Values are the Bedrock of Hard Reality

“Soft and fuzzy” has taken a severe hit with our recent economic tumbles. You know what I mean; those workplace humanity concepts which fall beyond the bottom line. We were doing fairly well working on them for a while, and our very rational, genuine selves will speak up and say, “Oh, don’t worry, we haven’t given up on that stuff. But you do understand we have to get the basics back first””

Just great. A “yeah, but” from our emotional intelligence.

As a Talking Story reader, you are aware of my answer. In the financial literacy which is as real as it gets, hard, soft, and everything inbetween, wealth is a value. No matter what goes on in our world, and no matter what factors are at play at any given time, our values are “hard concepts” in my mind: They will always be foundational to why we care, why we bother when we keep trying, and how we go about surviving.

I gave a 20-minute talk about this to an audience of association executives in New York City last week, and I was asked if I would share the transcript of my speech for their future reference. Here it is, for I thought you might enjoy it too, as a good summary of many of the conversations we have had here. My hope, is that you will have it be a mirror image of the business model you give your attentions to today, for you and I both know this to be true: We humans, at our rock-hard, real-as-it-gets core, are “soft and fuzzy” in the true intelligence which matters to us. Task at hand, is getting that to match up to the way we work — from now on.

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Aloha mai kakou— a hau‘oli makahiki hou— e mahalo keia lā
My Aloha to all of you, and a very happy New Year. Thank you for allowing me to share this time with you.

As you might guess, a luncheon speaker who wrote a book called Managing with Aloha has a mission in mind for these next 20 minutes we spend together, and I’m not going to lie to you, I do! My mission however, may not be exactly what you think it is, and so I’ll start by stating it, for Aloha has no hidden agenda, and neither do I:

By the time you get out of your chair and walk toward the rest of your life, I want you to feel that Aloha is much more relevant to you than you previously may have thought. Once something is relevant, you answer that question we all get in our heads about everything we decide we’ll award our attentions to, “What’s in it for me?” And despite the negative connotation that question can have at first-take, I think it is a very useful question from a perspective of self-leadership, just as useful as Aloha.

Relevance, and usefulness are two of my favorite management concepts. Because, well, they are relevant and useful, and probably never as much as now, in this aftermath of a “great recession” we find ourselves in. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and we all need to know “What’s in it for me?” and also, “Why should I bother?”

So let’s get to it:

Condensed into its shortest, and most relevant version, my story as a manager who loves being one, is simply this: Managing, with Aloha as a value, worked wonderfully for my business success and my own well-being at work, it worked brilliantly for the employees I had the good fortune of learning from. So now I offer Aloha as something which I am certain can work for you, even if you never set foot in our Hawai‘i nei, though we hope you will one day.

My mission of Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawai‘i’s Universal Values to the Art of Business, has gotten to be an everyday and every thing kind of presence for me, precisely because it is so relevant and useful. Managing and leading are verbs, actions all managers take regardless of their titles or positions on an org chart. To not talk about the managing we can do, with Aloha, has gotten close to trying not to think, or not to breathe for me. It is a mission which had come to be, because it helped me make sense of my life, and my working history, as someone born and raised in the Hawaiian islands deeply affected by sense of place. Very cool to have a mission you feel is all you, fitting you as snugly as a second skin. We call it “having Ho‘ohana,” an on-purpose intention within worthwhile work which is all-in us, whatever we define the mechanics of our work to be.

My mission started as a way to help me make my roots healthier, and to help me understand my sense of place in a more tangible way, a way more ethical, pragmatic and sensible in the work I was doing while in the hotel business. My approach, was gaining a better understanding of Hawai‘i’s ancestral values, and it led to my discovering many of the answers I needed for my questions about a better future. I was involved in hard work, but I wasn’t that sure why I even bothered. I didn’t want my work to be a job and nothing more.

I am a local girl, 4th-generation native by birth in Hawai‘i, but without a single drop of Hawaiian blood in me. As you might imagine, that gave me some explaining to do with other native Hawaiians who felt I had too short a native-born only ancestry to write authoritatively about Hawaiian values, or emotionally enough, and they were quite bold in their indignation at first, looking me directly in the eye, and saying, “How dare you!” You see, the big deal about values, is that they explain our behavior, and that’s what I was daring to do. And yes, I dared, for the payoff was too big to ignore.

When we, as managers, equip ourselves with a values vocabulary in the context of a work environment, using them as the building blocks of a workplace culture, we make that culture relevant to a community, healthier for our employees, and much more useful to us as the ambassadors of a company’s mission. It takes diligent focus at first, but in the process, we do make our job as managers easier.

I was careful to study with the kÅ«puna, our indigenous elders, before publishing anything, but quite honestly, that was happenstance initially, a stroke of good luck as I just jumped in and did it, and the result of my getting very fascinated with our Hawaiian values simply as someone who is a lifelong learner through and through: I’m kind of a learning nerd, and study of a subject I am highly curious about is an energetic high for me. Applying what I learn, and having it work its magic at work is the icing on the cake.

I was within year 17 of a 30 year hotel career when Managing with Aloha became my sensibility for healthy workplace culture: 17 years of learning to approach my work the hard way with all the bruises to show for it. I had plenty of passion for my work up to then, but as odd as it might sound to you, I never completely understood why I did, and I just did it. It was work at a passionate level high above going through the motions, but it wasn’t high enough, in that it wasn’t intentional for me —so believe me, I completely get it when people say “passion isn’t enough.” My work was what I was supposed to be doing according to my parents, my teachers, my bosses and employers, and even my fairly well-educated brain” By most standards I was an exceptional employee and a highly successful manager, fulfilling smart standards —all but my own.

So in this study of values, I eventually got to the point where the history of it all was fascinating —it continues to be fascinating the more I delve into Hawaiian history —but my goal was not to explain the past: I was more interested in its relevance to the work I was doing every single day —no matter what that day threw at us, and for our industry’s business prospects in the future. And simply said, the work I was doing every day, was about managing people, and specifically, people in a hotel business which sells Aloha like some charm bracelet draped around every conceivable business model you can imagine connected to the travel and hospitality industry, models intent on making healthier profits.

That’s what we business people are supposed to do, right?

Does that sound like self-justifying, commiserating marketing yuck to you? Greedy green monsters hidden in Aloha service clothing? Sounded that way to all my employees too, no matter how prettily I tried to dress it up in any business-speak. They did not want Aloha to mean revenue, and if that was what I wanted as their manager, you can bet I’d have undercover sabotage or a full-blown mutiny on my hands. They would serve my customers, and serve them well, but they would not sell if any resulting wealth defined Aloha as revenue.

Fact is, we managers cannot define wealth simply in financial terms because our employees don’t, and that is a reality you will never, ever change or escape. Money is part of everyone’s reality, and our unemployment in this global recession is the evidence plain as the nose on your face, but wealth is a valuenot a result. Wealth may be better financial health at a base level, but once you are earning it, wealth is also defined by family, connection to our ancestry, and our best vision of our future. All of these find their inner spirit, their constancy, and their strength in the values which shape our thinking, and our actions. And when the needs of our spirit are met, we find that any additional wealth we gain is most satisfying when shared in service to the community which had been there for us, and lifted us toward our greater good.

Wealth, as a value, is the reason ‘social entrepreneurship’ flourishes despite all odds, and even when non-profit business models flounder.

Wealth as a universal value, is the reason countries all around the world have flocked to help Haiti even though they have costly problems to address in their own back yards at home.

So if Aloha is a value too, one which does not mean revenue, what is it?

When you are born and raised with a Hawai‘i sense of place, this is what Aloha is, as briefly as I can possibly describe it to you with the etymology of the word:

Aloha is the combination of two smaller Hawaiian words, ‘alo’ and ‘ha.’

Ha is the breath of your life, a concept which is like DNA to the Hawaiian people. When you breathe in, and collect your breath, you are collecting a type of intelligence from three centers of being, which is DNA-like in that it is unique to you. It comes from your gut, where your ancestral wisdom resides, your genitals, as your intention for continuing all life in future generations, and your head as mindfulness which is as close as you can come to being graced with divine intervention. Those three things (ancestral wisdom, forward-looking intention, and divinity), combine in each and every breath you take, the breath which will propel you toward living the rest of the following moments. This is what we mean by someone’s Aloha spirit. That is ha, the breath of your life, and the engine of your body.

Whereas ha is inside you, ‘alo’ is on the outside. Your ‘alo’ is the face you present to the rest of the world, and much different from DNA, your alo is of your choosing. Your demeanor, your presence, your blending into the world and opening up to what each and every day offers up to you —and to what each and every person you encounter offers up to you —you choose to make those encounters happen well, or you don’t. Alo is sort of like personality and mood, whereas ha is more like the character you have when no one is looking, character you will always have, and only borne of ancestral good.

One of the most beautifully compelling beliefs about the Hawaiian culture, is that there is no such thing as a bad person from the standpoint of ha: People are born good. There is only bad behavior, chosen in the manipulation of your alo for some mis-directed reason, but a reason which can always be redirected toward good when you manage to purposely connect to your ha.

So put them together, and Aloha is living your life from the inside out, where both inside and outside are a harmonious and healthy match, perfectly aligned, and willingly shared with the rest of the world. Thus Aloha is referred to by most in Hawai‘i as the value of unconditional love. Love for self and others. Loving yourself enough to share who you are in complete authenticity and vulnerability. “What you see is what you get, and it’s me, and it’s good!” It is a greeting hello, as in “I offer myself to you completely.” It is the Aloha of goodbye, as in “when we part our Aloha remains ever shared between us, helping us remain healthy and connected” for life is not meant to be a solo proposition.

We have mostly spoken of managing employees with Aloha, but imagine your customers getting that feeling from you!

At first Aloha sounds really woo-woo, soft stuff intangible and unmeasurable doesn’t it. However make no mistake about it; to the people of Hawai‘i it is REAL, and it is sacred. Imagine how my employees felt trying to script it, and then sell it.

To be clear, I have never, ever been down on business: On the contrary, business is my playground, and as a deliverable beyond the book, Managing with Aloha is an operating system in a healthy organizational culture where we focus on Aloha-woven management practices, including having a healthier attitude and reality check on economics. You are looking at a manager’s advocate who is quite a champion of financial literacy.

Money is not evil; it is a means to an end, and when you have it, business life is pretty sweet. Simply because you can do way more good than you can without having it. I believe that businesses have a responsibility to offer thorough, and completely transparent financial literacy training to all their employees; it’s one of the smartest financial strategies which I know of, because it answers that “what’s in this for me?” question I mentioned earlier, but on several levels: Your employees learn financial lessons in a harsh new great-recession world as they co-author better business models with you. They are close to so much, and chances are, they have a clue to the answer of some financial riddle which presently evades you.

Everyone needs and wants money today. A co-authored, value-aligned business model is one employees support, never dreaming of sabotage or mutiny, and never succumbing to far bigger evils: the mediocrity of going through the motions and not caring, or the hopeless feeling of there being no other option in sight.

On the contrary, when people work in an environment managed with Aloha, they arrive at their own Aloha authenticity. It is a profound gift, one your work culture has given them. Then, they pursue the Ho‘ohana intention of deliberate work, where they understand why they bother, and they want what’s in it for them. They work incredibly hard for it. When your values are aligned, they want what’s in it for you, what’s in it for your vision and mission, and what’s in that cool and sexy future which better financial health will bring you.

So where do you start? You start with you.

Whatever you learn here today, make it relevant, and make it useful. Answer your “Why bother?” and “What’s in it for you” questions from that fertile place of your own Aloha. Live from your inside out. Say what your values are, stand up for them, and live by them. Then having done that for you, do it for your team, and welcome Aloha authenticity from everyone connected to the work you do.

I commend you for being here today, and for learning. If you are here, you are open to being better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Learn well enough to go back to your workplace and teach financial strategy as financial literacy. Be open to finding your relevance, and the usefulness lifting you to your greater good. Some call it ‘legacy.’ You will find the definition of wealth you can pursue with honor, with dignity, and with respect for the person you are meant to be. Wealth will have become your Aloha value too.


  1. says

    This is truly an exceptional speech, Rosa. It is a summary (as you tweeted), but to me anyway, it is a clear definition of who you are and what you stand for as a leader in a much stronger sense. A little masterpiece, what you communicate in your speech is powerful, masterful, and poignant. Thank you so much for this.

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you so much Dan. When I awake in the morning for each new day’s work, I feel very fortunate that the connection between Aloha and what I do as a manager’s advocate and workplace coach is so very clear to me. I hope I help others get to their own clarity too.

  2. says

    …it’s like rediscovering that long lost well worn leather coat. and it still fits perfectly!

    I think the problem with many managers today Rosa, is they allow interference from above to block their own ability to help their coworkers live from the inside out.

    • Rosa Say says

      True that “managing up” can take just as much of our attention as the managing and leading we are supposedly charged with every day. We often lose sight of the fact that every boss probably has a boss of his/her own to contend with.

      I think managers need to bring them into the conversation Dave, and not feel it is their job to shield them from problems… often, ignorance is not bliss!