I have worked with companies that approach developing a list of core values as almost an afterthought, in large part because they've been living those values for years. In those instances, it's almost like marrying someone you've lived with for a decade and are totally committed to.

In other words, the piece of paper means something, but it didn't take a piece of paper to define your commitment.

On the other hand, I've worked with companies that have a finely crafted values statement that appears to have no bearing at all on how they actually do business. I've also has the unfortunately common experience of working for one boss who had a supposedly firm commitment to a set of values that withered the minute those values and an ability to hold on to his job came into conflict.

Here's the thing: Values aren't words crafted by a consultant before they are framed and hung in your lobby. Values aren't what you would do if you ever had a hypothetical choice between right and wrong, especially when doing the right thing had the potential for great personal loss.

And values definitely aren't about who you vote for. I've learned that both liberals and conservatives are equally capable of throwing their values out the window, especially if they have the opportunity for personal profit.

Values aren't about any of those things. Having real values means having those values tested and passing the test.

More than anything else, having real values means having real courage.

The courage to pass up a client or customer.

The courage to lose a job.

The courage to be ostracized by your colleagues, the courage to be disowned by your network, the courage to lose something real and tangible and often closely related to your bank account.

"Values" as self-assigned traits and "values statements" as watered-down corporate clichés mean absolutely nothing.

Values as reflected by your actions are the only time values have, well, actual value.

So, the next time you're writing a values statement for your company, pay less attention to the words on paper, and pay more attention to your company's actions. How do you treat customers? How do you treat employees? Do you invest in your community? Is the world better off because your company exists? The answers to those questions will determine whether your commitment to your values is real, or just words on a piece of paper.

And the next time you're wondering whether you're a moral person, if you are a person who lives his or her values, don't think about what you believe, who you vote for, or which political party you identify with.

Reflect instead on how you've acted, and you'll find your answer.