Leaders must have language that drives their actions; that begins with identifying their personal core values and those of their district.

What do we believe is important, why do we feel this way, and how do those beliefs influence our actions as leaders? Every school district and school have mission and vision statements, many of them lofty pronouncements about meeting the needs of the whole child and preparing children to meet the demands of the 21st century while nurturing their artistic ability. In fact, over the past 16 years, most schools have been organized around one idea: that students score high enough on state standardized tests so that the school and district will meet acceptable benchmarks in the state accountability system.

Missions and visions are important; it’s essential that leaders have language that describes where they’re going. But how are you expected to get there? What drives your actions as a leader, and why do you do what you do? These are our values, and they’re an essential part of adaptive change management. Strategies, tactics, goals, and missions change; values are your core and remain steadfast despite new laws, new conditions, and new goals. They shape the culture of your organization and, when the complexity and immediacy of school system leadership seem overwhelming, your values should ground decisions and actions.

k1611_3column2_starr_fig1I’m an unabashed fan of Zappos — mainly because I can always find a variety of shoes in my size (13) — but also because of how Tony Hsieh talks about what his company stands for and how he wants to lead. He knows that values should be statements that the company is willing “to hire and fire on” (Hsieh, 2010). School systems aren’t always so forthcoming about what they believe and their willingness to hold themselves accountable for following their values. And, unlike a private entity such as Zappos, the multiple competing demands and interests within a community can make an agreed-upon set of values hard to come by. Hence, too many districts rely on platitudes that everyone can get behind. That was certainly the case when I became superintendent of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools.

MCPS had a long-standing tradition of equity and excellence; it literally puts its money where its mouth is by allocating additional resources to schools with the most students on free and reduced-priced meals. Unlike my previous superintendency in Stamford, Conn., which had nearly the same demographics, leaders, faculty and the community were generally able to talk openly about race and the urgency of helping those who needed the most, even if it meant that schools with more affluent children received less. The implicit values were clear to me, but the language that codified them was murky and rarely referenced by system leaders. I needed an imprimatur to organize a system around our collective beliefs about how we were expected to act in service of children and the community. Values are the foundation of culture, and, as I aspired to change the culture of the system, we needed clear statements about what we believed.

As we were embarking on a community engagement process to develop a new strategic planning framework that would guide the district’s innovation and improvement efforts, having a clear and communicable set of core values became increasingly important. The strategic plan is the work of the superintendent with input from stakeholders. The board of education, however, is responsible for the mission, vision, core purpose, and values of the school system. Hence, the board of education and I engaged in a values-setting process that laid the foundation for our strategic planning work.

The first action we undertook was to find a model, which we found in United Health Care. One of UHC’s executives was a great partner to me and the system, and he presented UHC’s values to the board in a public session (www.unitedhealthgroup.com/about/missionvalues.aspx). What struck us — and became our model — was the clarity of the language in their values. Each word was backed up with statements of beliefs and actions that corresponded to the value. While many school districts, including MCPS, have articulated their values in a sentence intended to signify the importance of the belief, UHC’s model made it clear what the company believes in and what actions they will take in support of that belief.

This model led MCPS to develop its core values — Learning, Relationships, Respect, Engagement, and Equity. Not only does each word have more language to expand on its meaning, there’s a correlating implicit theory of action: If we learn together, promote relationships, respect and engage with each other, all through an equity lens, then student achievement will improve. The core values became something I could easily refer to in any speech, discussion, or public presentation, and served as a benchmark for individual and collective responsibility.

As system leaders seek to improve public education so that all children achieve at higher levels, knowing what you believe in — both personally and collectively — becomes an essential anchor for actions. The technical work of schools is never-ending. There’s always one more budget to pass or cut, curriculum to be written, business processes to be improved, political issue to be resolved or crisis to solve. None of that will go away. But while making those decisions, the community — both internal and external — must know what leaders stand for and why certain decisions were made.

I’ve always found one of the joys of leadership to be articulating my core values and aligning actions to them. While core values certainly haven’t led to unanimous agreement with every decision I’ve made, no one has ever questioned the consistency of why I made those decisions and what I believed in. That makes the leadership just a little bit more fulfilling.


Hsieh, T. (2010, May 24). How Zappos infuses culture using core values. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2010/05/how-zappos-infuses-culture-using-core-values

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in November 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 72-73. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.