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Value Driven

 

BY R. GERARD LONGO

School leaders must be value-driven, establishing priorities that respect children and those who serve them.

Doing the right thing for children while being bombarded by an endless potpourri of school reform policies and mandates is a considerable challenge. New teacher evaluation schemes, tighter collective bargaining rules, revised certification guidelines and races to someplace may well narrow our focus, consume too much of our verve and unwittingly sidetrack us.

In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. published In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. As a young central-office administrator, I devoured the book and its lessons. Like the contemporary favorite Good to Great by Jim Collins, the earlier work was highly relevant to the role of school leaders.

In particular, I was influenced powerfully by the chapter titled “Hands-on, Value Driven,” in which the authors contend that excellent companies are characterized by an implicit value system. They wrote, “Clarifying the value system and breathing life into it are the greatest contributions a leader can make. Moreover, that’s what the top people in the excellent companies seem to worry about most.”

The top executive in the best-run companies is the shaper and manager of the organization’s values. At the time I had no well-defined idea of what I believed as an education leader, so I initiated a process that still guides my leadership behavior.

Daily Expressions
I began by outlining my core values in writing. This was an arduous task, as I had no template to follow. Next, I committed myself to annually re-examine my core values. Although they have not changed, new experiences and new knowledge have led me to re-interpret and adapt them to the times.

In Search of Excellence helped me to understand that a leader’s values are defined by what the leader does rather than by what the leader pronounces. Recording on paper what I believed allowed me to manage what I valued most. In my 22 years as a superintendent, I defined my leadership through the day-to-day expression of my core values.

It was important everyone knew what their leader stood for, and it was important for them to see me practice what I preached. Periodically, I revisited my core values with the entire staff, and every day I found ways to work them into discussions with teachers, students and members of the school community.

Demonstrating a deep affection for children, possessing the courage to innovate and take responsible risks, nurturing a learning community that prizes self-actualization among children and adults, and developing and maintaining healthy relationships with colleagues summarize the values that have guided my professional life.

Articulating how these values influenced programs and policy helped me to explain or react to otherwise thorny issues. My guiding metaphor was that of a sculptor whose job involved shaping a gigantic block of stone into an object of lasting beauty. Core values were my cutting tools. The object of lasting beauty was my vision of the school district.

My values developed from practical experience and scholarship as a school administrator, teacher and citizen. They reflect my ideals, ethics and guiding principles. Not everyone shares my core values. Their expression frequently leads to passionate debates and challenging questions. I know this from experience. Nonetheless, everyone understands they are as much a part of me as my heart or my head.

Constants Defined
Over the last five years, I have helped to prepare emerging school leaders for the superintendency. Students in my classes complete a number of activities designed to explore the values and principles that will guide them in their leadership journey. The process is empowering.

We use both Good to Great and In Search of Excellence in our training of the aspiring leaders. There are similarities in the books. Both examine theories of greatness and leadership. Peters and Waterman point out that excellent companies are “fanatic” about sticking to their core values. Both books illustrate the worth of leaders who build cultures characterized by enduring core values. As Collins wrote: “Great organizations keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change) and operating strategies and cultural practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).”

Defining one’s core values as a school leader will pay dividends far into an unfolding and unknowable future. We live in a fast-changing world where the only constant may be one’s values. Expressed in a thousand different ways from Socrates to Dr. Seuss, knowing ourselves and the values that guide our behavior is essential for those of us who lead.

In a time of challenge to the public institutions that serve our children, school leaders must precisely define and communicate their core values as a necessary beginning.

Jerry Longo, a former superintendent of the year in Pennsylvania, is senior fellow and visiting associate professor of education at University of Pittsburgh. E-mail: longoj@pitt.edu

 

 

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