A clarity of values

In August 2019, with some upheaval imminent at work, I could sense a leadership role on the horizon. While I wasn’t sure what shape it would take, I started contemplating the attributes of good leadership and what kind of leader I wanted to be. 

To spark my thinking, I read Brene Brown’s book, ‘Dare to Lead’. Brown is a leading voice in shame and vulnerability. Unfortunately, the writing style is filled with self-coined platitudes and corporate-speak which borders on painful, but there are pockets of insights. The most useful part, and the focus of this blog post, is the connections between self-awareness, values and leadership.

Brown writes that who we are is how we lead and that clarity of our values—what we believe that we hold most important—is key. As leaders, we need to take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviours align with those beliefs. Importantly, she defines a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.

To help in the process of naming your values, Brown includes a list of more than 100 values along with space to write your own. The task is to whittle down those that that strike a chord until you are left with just two core values that have deep resonance. While choosing only two values is tough, as Brown says, the two core values are where all of the ‘second tier’ ones are tested. And, if everything is important, then nothing is.

To narrow down the list, I looked for relationships between the values I had identified. For example, one of my core values is integrity. To me, this includes being authentic, having respect for others, being accountable, taking responsibility, demonstrating honesty, and having courage to do what’s right even if it is difficult. (The words in italics are other values on the list.) 

Having identified my two core values—integrity and understanding—I generated a long list of behaviours that exemplify each. Along with the ones mentioned earlier, my list for integrity includes keeping confidences, being consistent, and following through. I return to these lists periodically to check that I’m not just professing my values, but also practicing them.

Over time, I have landed on the following summary of my values:

“My core guiding principles are to act with integrity and to seek understanding. From integrity stems accountability, transparency and fairness. Striving to understand information leads to evidence-informed decisions and good judgement. Striving to understand people leads to them feeling respected and supported.”

The statement provides me with a touchstone—particularly in challenging moments—to remind myself of what I hold to be important and to guide my next actions. The summary has also been useful to communicate my values to others.

To try this exercise yourself, I highly recommend working through Colin Breck’s excellent blog post which I found several months after completing this activity.

In April 2020, I found myself1 in a senior leadership role. The challenges of a completely restructured university, a global pandemic that fundamentally changed the nature of higher education, and building new teams, relationships and processes while working remotely, certainly tested my mettle. Having clearly defined core values that I could refer to was both a salve and a guide. Similarly, arriving at the decision to step down from this role at the end of 2021 and redirect my energy towards mathematics education, was aided by a clarity of values and a sense of purpose. (There is perhaps a second blog post in articulating a sense of purpose but I have largely followed the process set down by Robert Talbert in this blog post and so I suggest you read that.)

When I set out to write this blog post I wanted to explore how my core values held up in the context of teaching, which is something I am returning to this year with a renewed focus. However, when I reflect on my teaching practices and past blog posts, including this one on focusing on the relationships, I can see that listening to my students, respecting their ideas and them as individuals, showing them kindness and grace, using backward design principles to seek clarity in course design, making evidence-informed decisions through formative assessment, and many more are all encapsulated by my core values.

So despite the uncertainty and challenges that 2022 will undoubtedly bring, I have a sense of optimism that I can deal with whatever lies ahead.


[1] I know that phrasing is odd but, despite my thoughts in August 2019, this wasn’t a role I was actively seeking. It’s funny how these opportunities present themselves, although perhaps it’s more a case of the saying ‘fortune favours the prepared mind’.

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