Ben Davis (CEO St Martins MAT) looks at the value of values
Choosing values can be tricky. How many should you have? 23? There are a lot to choose from, so this would certainly be comprehensive. Or what about nine? Perhaps a bit easier to try and remember, plus, you could focus on three per term with pupils. Or maybe three? One per term! Efficient. Maybe we should think about the number of values as Jim Collins thinks about priorities: If you have more than three priorities then you don’t have any. And three is the magic number, after all
As a school leader, this can be a challenge. There is often a problem with people remembering what the values of an organisation are. When a member of staff is asked, you can witness a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ moment as they will frantically try and remember the list, eyes darting around looking for clues, searching the recess of their memories, trying to picture staff meetings from the past. And the memory test is only the first part! Imagine the scene of a keen and committed member of the team who proudly recalls the list of values (as if they had practised for a question on Mastermind) only to be floored by the follow-up killer question: but what do they mean?
If the values only remain as a list on the school website or as part of an introduction to a school document somewhere, with only those with acute memory skills being able to remember them, then what is the point in having them? We need to be clear on the purpose of our values and be able to articulate and define them. The values of an organisation should be a thread through everything. We should be able to take the lens of, say, ‘integrity’ and see it in the way people interact with one another, how decisions are made… with the lens of ‘compassion’, for example, we should see this in aspects such as our leave of absence policy, how we deal with unacceptable pupil behaviour. The chosen values should be in the very fibres, the DNA of the organisation.
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown explores the importance of values, particularly in leadership. In her work, she offers this definition: “a value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.”
If fully understood by an organisation, values can offer crucial assistance, particularly in times of difficulty. Brené Brown talks about going into the ‘arena’, which can fit a description of how some difficult and challenging days at school can be.
“More often than not, our values are what lead us to the arena door – we’re willing to do something uncomfortable and daring because of our beliefs. And when we get in there and stumble or fall, we need our values to remind us why we went in, especially when we are face down, covered in dust and sweat and blood.”
If we can get this right and put effort and energy into exploring and understanding values that are important to our school communities, we can have a vital support mechanism, especially when having to make difficult decisions or we are required to be brave. Having those core values provide a foundation for what we stand for and can offer guidance when things get tough.
But it isn’t easy. As school leaders, we can be tested daily. It is difficult to be true to your values and to be a role model of those principles and behaviours when you just know that a member of staff is not doing that. Sometimes people may say what they want you to hear, but their actions do not bear out their sentiment… You just know. That is when it is tricky.
“Living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk – we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviours align with those beliefs.”
We can’t live into our values if we can’t even name them, so there may be a piece of work that needs to be done. But to have some clarity around the importance of values could provide essential support and be the North Star in times of darkness as we walk our talk.
Ben Davis is CEO of St Martin’s MAT, Wolverhampton. Ben has been a senior leader in Wolverhampton for over 15 years, previously as a Deputy and Headteacher and now CEO. He has facilitated on NQT and NPQ programmes and has been involved in extensive training and consultancy support to schools.