Vanderbilt University is a school of almost 13,000 students and, like any other university, has a number of official student organizations. Several are religious groups that exist to develop the faith of its members and invite others to explore that faith. Each group has student leaders who are ostensibly selected for their commitment to the values of that organization, among other qualities. However, last year, Vanderbilt University administration implemented a new nondiscrimination policy that requires these organizations to keep positions of leadership open to anyone, whether or not they agree with the organizations values.
Update (Feb 6, 2013): More recently, a nearly identical event occurred at the University of Michigan. Their nondiscrimination policy was at odds with organizations that required leaders to sign a statement of faith. Read about the U of M and the Asian chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in The Daily Caller.
School administrators at Vanderbilt put four organizations on a provisional status because they required students in positions of leadership to sign a statement of faith. This practice was part of the impetus for Vanderbilt administration to enact the new nondiscrimination policy. John Sims Baker, priest and chaplain to Vanderbilt Catholic, the largest religious organization on campus, said, “It has become quite clear to the students that we either stand for something or fall for anything. We choose to stand for Jesus Christ, and we expect that our leadership do the same.”1
Should organizations expect their leaders to uphold and live the values it proclaims? Or, is the pursuit of tolerance and diversity important enough that organizations should accept leaders whose personal values do not necessarily align with those of the organization?
What is the role of values in leading?
Author and teacher Samuel Rima described values as “those things to which we attach a relative worth, utility, or importance.”2 We value what we think has worth, what we think is useful, and what we think is important. For example, one of my personal values is integrity. I think that integrity has worth, usefulness, and importance in my life. When I have a difficult decision to make, my value of integrity often informs the decision. I am not perfect in living out this value, but that’s not the point. The point is whether my behavior becomes more consistent with that value over time.
What does this matter in leading? Rima also said, “Our personal values will inevitably influence our behavior. Thus it is essential as leaders that we be able to clearly identify and articulate our unique values.” 3 The most effective leaders are able to tell you what is important to them. They know what they will stand for when challenged. These leaders’ values guide and direct their behavior.
What is the role of organizational values in leading?
It is rather obvious, but nevertheless important to point out that both individuals and organizations have values. More importantly, in both cases these values influence behavior. Let me be clear: Organizational values exist to guide and direct the behavior of its members in the same way that personal values guide and direct the behavior of the individual.
Does it then make any sense for an organization to put people in positions of leadership whose values conflict with that of the organization? Can the organization, in good conscience, allow leaders to act in a manner not valued as correct? Of course not.
Turning our attention back to the individual: This is why it is important for leaders to clearly identify and articulate their own values. Rima explained, “By doing so, the leader minimizes the potential for chaos, disruption, and even the possible demise of the organization that can result when there exists a conflict between the values of the leader and those of the organization.” 4 Many organizations are in the midst of such chaos for the very reasons suggested here. Either the leaders do not have a clear understanding of their own values or the organization has placed people in positions of leadership whose values conflict with the organization.
There are many clear examples around us, but this crisis of leader-organization values incongruity is most prevalent in organizations that have faith and religion as their foundation. This includes churches and private schools. This is especially sad, because it is these organizations and their leaders that should have the most clarity about what they believe. They should have at the helm of leadership individuals who are crystal clear about their own values and those values should be consistent with the organization’s.
At Vanderbilt University, the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi was working to put these principles in practice. They removed one of its leaders because of a stance on homosexuality. They were trying to enforce values congruity. (This was the genesis of Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy.5) In contrast, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a crisis of leadership because it has pastors whose values agree with Scripture on issues of homosexuality, but disagree with the denomination. At the same time, other pastor’s values agree with the denomination, but not Scripture. This gives rise to chaos.
Update (Feb 8, 2013): The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is also struggling with a leadership crisis that has values at the center. Read about a LCMS pastor who preached Jesus and prayed at a Newtown, CT interfaith service, but was criticized for doing so by his LCMS leadership in this blog entry by Gene Veith.
These problems aren’t limited to religious groups and organizations, though. Organizations of all kinds have the same challenge to ensure consistency between leaders’ values and the organization’s values.
When leaders’ personal values are not consistent with the values of the organization, chaos is sure to result. If your organization is experiencing chaos, I encourage you to look at the values congruity issue. I also encourage you to develop clarity regarding your own values and to determine if they are consistent with the organization’s. If not, you have some choices to make.
1: Leigh Jones, “Campus Divide.” World Magazine, May 5, 2012
2: Samuel D. Rima, Leading from the Inside Out: The Art of Self-Leadership. Baker Books, 2000, p. 38
3: Rima, p. 41.
4: Rima, p. 42.