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Shared Values: Glue that binds us!

March 2, 2013

I am reading the classic book on leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.  Those who interact with Kouzes and Posner’s work have nothing but positive things to say about what they learn about themselves as leaders and how to become a more effective leader.  Their work and ideas on leadership have evolved over time, now in its 5th edition, but what stands out about their work is the extensive amount of research, using interviews as well as combing the literature, that supports their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model (see graphic below from click here).

Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership

I find one idea they explore, the importance of building a foundation of shared values within an organization, to be particularly powerful as a game changer.   I have thought about this idea throughout my career as an educational leader, but rarely have I intentionally reflected on what am I doing, or not doing, to establish a culture of shared values?

In their research they have found that

shared values make a significant and positive difference in work attitude and commitments (page 60).

They present the following list of outcomes (page 60) that can occur if an organization is guided by a set of shared values which the leader(s) affirm and support.

  • Foster strong feelings of personal effectiveness
  • Promote high levels of company (organization) loyalty
  • Facilitate consensus about key organizational goals and stakeholders
  • Encourage ethical behavior
  • Promote strong norms about working hard and caring
  • Reduce levels of job stress and tension
  • Foster pride in the company (organization)
  • Facilitate understanding about job expectations
  • Foster teamwork and esprit de corps

Any organization would be proud to have their employees exemplify these traits or outcomes, most of which would be easy to measure.  I wonder to what extent leaders of organizations (schools) could say with great assurance that they have intentionally worked hard to establish a culture of shared values and communicate them on a regular basis.  Could the challenge of creating a culture of shared values be at the heart of why so many schools and school districts around the country struggle with loyalty, ethical behavior (cheating), high levels of stress or teacher burn-out, lack of pride in a school district’s efforts and leadership, and teamwork that supports high expectations for student achievement?

If this is a challenge that many schools experience, leadership that is unable to foster a community of shared values, then it strikes me we want to understand why.  I would argue that partners, such as parents, policy makers, and higher education folks, interject their programs or ideas on our schools such that school leadership drowns in the “weight of the other.”  Principals struggle finding their voice, executing their vision, communicating their values, and working collaboratively with their faculty to construct a set of shared values.  Is this true?  Should principals be asking themselves: (1) do we have clarity around our values; and (2) have I built consensus when it comes to our shared values?  How do I shut out the political noise to work on meeting the needs of my teachers and students, freeing them up to teach and learn and be creative in the time and space they are given?  I think partners need to temper their involvement in the business of schooling.  We ARE drowning in the weight of bureaucratic interference with the educational process: NCLB, waivers to NCLB, Common Core Standards, PARCC, high-stakes testing, faculty evaluations based on student achievement data, and many more.  We do not leave enough creative space for school leaders, teachers, and students to define the learning process and outcomes that result in unique, creative and demanding learning spaces where teachers and students are fully engaged in meaningful work.

Let’s give our school leaders (principals) encouragement and support to construct a set of shared values within their schools, which serve as a springboard for effective teaching and learning.

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