Hanna: Living Our Values

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(HOST) Commentator and Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna recently spent some time with state leaders exploring ethical decision-making and learned quite a bit.

(HANNA) Do you know what your values really are, and are you making decisions consistent with them?

My colleague Martha Maksym asked these questions to participants in this year’s Vermont Leadership Institute, a program sponsored by the Snelling
Center for Government.

Martha and I were teaching a session on ethical leadership. She handed out a sheet with different values listed on it things like family, success, wealth, justice, truth, and courage.  She asked each person to narrow down the list to their top two values, which wasn’t easy.

After all, most of us value all sorts of things, but it’s difficult to prioritize what matters most.

After people identified their top two values, she asked us to consider if we were making decisions consistent with those values.  But she didn’t want to hear what we thought.

Instead, she said we should look at our calendars and our checkbooks.  It’s how you spend your time and your money that really tells you if you are living your values.  If you claim you value family most, but rarely manage to make it home for dinner, that really tells you something.

It was one of those Ah-ha moments. Of course, all of us have made decisions that conflict with our values, and so Martha next asked when
you’ve done so, what did it cost you?

She told the story of another colleague who did this exercise with business leaders. When asked, what did it cost you, they said things like, "it cost me my marriage," and "it caused my cancer."   Not every bad decision has such dire consequences, but you do pay a price when your decisions are inconsistent with your core beliefs.

This is a really simple, but really instructive exercise to do personally, and with your institution.
I saw this work last year at my own school.  Like many places, we faced an uncertain financial picture because of the economy.  Rather than just lay-off people, our leaders sent around a survey, asking people to rank our values. What became clear was that we most valued the people in our community. Nearly everyone was willing to forgo pay and benefits so no one would lose a job. We emerged a stronger place because we undertook this process.

And as hard as this might be, it would be very useful for the legislature and the Governor to undertake a similar self-examination.

Before trying to prioritize programs, they ought to take a step back and try to prioritize values. And they should narrow those values down to two.  Otherwise, they risk losing focus.

Then, our leaders ought to make sure that they’re making decisions consistent with those values, and to do so, they ought to look at their calendars and look at the budget.  

If what we really value most is job creation, then every committee ought to be devoted to getting people back to work, and every expenditure ought to reflect that priority, too.

It wouldn’t be easy, and everyone would have to make some sacrifices, but this current budget crisis presents an opportunity for real ethical leadership.  

If we don’t make decisions consistent with our values, then it will cost us. If we do, the state will undoubtedly emerge stronger.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Cheryl Hanna on-line at VPR-dot-net.

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