Be a Values Vigilante

New Rule: Be a Values Vigilante

I am suggesting that maybe our values are under attack and the long-term consequences will keep getting worse. Everyone has to make their own decision. I can’t, nor should I, make decisions for others. I do want to encourage people to think through their decisions. I find the models of our government are similar to local issues. People have to make a decision whether re-election to a seat in Congress trumps standing up for what is right. People also have to make decisions on whether money can buy their children into college versus helping your kids deal with the boosters and barriers of life. Leaders have to make decisions on whether to accept political pressure to deviate from safety procedures or to allow a student to be in school. I am sure you have your own competing issues to deal with.

First a definition of Vigilante, “a committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily, as when the processes of law appear inadequate.” Sometimes policies and procedures are inadequate for holding on to our values. When the news broke about people with money getting their kids into universities circumventing the normal process, some people were shocked. My response was, “well, duh.”

As a long time principal, most people are aghast at what I have been asked to do including changing grades, firing football coaches, letting kids who use drugs to participate in activities, and hiring a friend of a board of education member to a leadership position rather than going through the hiring process (the candidate didn’t have a teaching or administration license). I have also had a parent put on pressure not to expel a high school student who brought drugs and knives in the trunk of his car. Their comment was, ‘he is a good kid.’ Yes, good kid, bad decision. So, the news story of parents buying their way into universities made sense to me. How does a leader or group of professionals hold on to strong values in the face of political pressure?

A former colleague of mine, Michael Huerth and I talked about values one afternoon. We were both high school principals in Minneapolis Public Schools. I asked Mike, who has strong values, “how do you keep your values while dealing with the political pressures from the district, parents, and community?” He responded with a story about a suicide spear.

There are times when you decide the pressures or the requests are wrong, and to keep your values, you decide this is the issue, the hill, to die on. You put your spear in the ground and say, “if you are going to kill me, kill me here on this issue, but I am not changing my position.” We both knew that supervisors can and have made different decisions and that is their right to do in most organizations. I never forgot this story and am grateful for Mike’s opinion. This story has helped me in my career and life. Of course, you have to be willing to pay the consequences of any decision you make. AND, I can’t make that decision for anyone else but me. If you are in your 40s and have two kids and a spouse, you have to make the decision based on your time and place.

I have heard the following quote attributed to Ed Sheehan, Bill Cosby, and others. “I can’t tell you the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.” I will include a story from the book, Trainer’s Companion, (2004), by Olsen & Sommers which illustrates this point at the end of this rule.

When I teach leadership classes in school administration, I start with two questions:
1. How do you feel about dealing with conflict?
2. What are you willing to get fired for?

The first question usually gets a response, ‘you are just trying to scare us.’ Let me be clear. You don’t have to like conflict; I don’t know many who do. However, if you really don’t like to deal with conflict, please, for your own sake, stay out of positional leadership in schools or district. If you have to be liked all the time, the conflict will eat you alive. You are going to deal with students, staff, and community who are strong people with competing views. That creates conflict.

The second question is designed to do the inner search for your foundation values. Notice I didn’t say you have to get fired. I can almost guarantee you will be tested. When under pressure, that is not the time to try to figure out what you stand for. Again, I didn’t say you have to quit. Over my years I have found that I have to rely on what I believe to help determine the path forward. Do that internal discussion by yourself, or with a trusted friend, before you face these challenges. My former principal, Dr. Ken Northwick, (1975) told me when I first became an assistant principal, ‘know what you believe, it will be important when facing challenges.’ Even though Ken is deceased, I am grateful for the advice over forty years ago.

Here are a few resources about values in the literature. I have mention Stan Slap (2010) in previous rules and posts. His two value questions are:
1. What are your top three values?
2. How did you get that value?

If you are going to work long-term with a group like administrative teams (both internal and workgroups), support staff, committees, parent groups, starting with these two questions can be extremely important. Knowing what values a person has and the experiences that developed those strong values goes a long way in developing trust for the person. The discussion gives insights into why someone might have an opposing view rather than making an assumption they are just being obstinate. I encourage you to read Stan’s book, Bury My Heart in Conference Room B.

A second resource is Blanchard and Peale’s book I read many years ago. “There is no right way to do the wrong things.” They suggest you ask yourself three questions before making a decision.
1. Is it legal?
2. Is it balanced?
3. How will it make me feel about myself?
Even though this a book from thirty years ago and I strongly suggest reading it. To reiterate, each person or leader has to make their own decision based on their view of the situation. I try not to judge people. To work with organizations I have to decide whether our values are closely linked together or too far apart to bridge the chasm.

David Rock (2010) wrote an article called SCARF. Knowing one’s values can also offer insight into their decision-making and what drives their behavior. SCARF is an acronym for:
• Status – wanting status for their knowledge, skills, longevity, etc.
• Certainty – most of us want certainty. If this is extremely high, it may be so restrictive to a complex situation.
• Autonomy – smart people want the flexibility to do what they think is right
• Relatedness – social interaction with colleagues, kids, and community
• Fairness – are all groups represented or taken into account, does the decision favor a group?

The above is my short interpretations. The article goes into much more detail and meaning. I strongly suggest reading David Rock’s article to understand our colleagues better. Rock (2009) also wrote Your Brain at Work. A worthwhile read to be sure.

The last resource I will mention is also from business literature. Ray Dalio (2017) Principles, outlines how Bridgewater organization operates and shows better results than most other investment groups. Dalio was one of the three organizations Kegan and Lahey (2016) cited in their book, An Everyone’s Culture.

A quote from Dalio’s book is “the most important thing I learned is an approach to life-based on principles that helps me find out what’s true and what to do about it.” A powerful guidance system for the leader of the organization to have to guide behavior. Dalio suggests two major organizational values:
1. Be radically open-minded
2. Be radically transparent

Kegan and Lahey draw from Dalio’s work to help make the case for trustful organizations. Both books provide thoughtful, actionable behaviors to create an ethical culture.

An old adage is ‘if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.’ What do you stand for? Who do you stand up for? How are people with little or no voice being treated?

So, what are your values? How did you get them? Have you thanked the people who helped you develop your values?


A miller, his son, and their donkey were walking from one town to another, hoping to find someone to buy the donkey; they couldn’t afford to feed it during the approaching winter.

They hadn’t gone far when they passed some travelers heading the other way. As they passed, the miller overheard one of the travelers say, “Look at those fools. With such a healthy donkey, one of them could surely ride. Not wanting to appear foolish, the miller made his son mount the animal while the miller walked alongside. After a while, they passed an inn. A group of old men sat in the sidewalk cafe sipping coffee, talking enthusiastically.

As the miller and his son passed, an old man was overheard to say, “It’s just as I’ve been telling you. The young are lazy and disrespectful of their elders. Look at that healthy boy riding the donkey while his old father walks!”
Again, not wishing to appear foolish or disrespectful himself, the miller asked his son to get off the donkey and climbed on.

They next met some women coming from town. “Why!” they cried. “Your poor little boy is nearly tired out. How can you ride and make him walk?” Stinging from the criticism, the miller ordered his son to mount the donkey as they both rode.

“Would you believe it!” said another traveler to his companions. “This man is trying to kill his donkey. The poor thing will be exhausted, carrying such a heavy load. What a way to treat an animal!”

The miller and his son, not wanting to appear cruel, got off the donkey. The miller found some rope and a strong pole and, with his son’s help, tied the donkey, upside down, to the pole. Then they carried the donkey on their shoulders.

As they got to town, people came out to witness this ridiculous spectacle. A crowd gathered, laughing, pointing fingers, and shouting. The crowd pressed in closer. As the trio crossed a bridge that led to town, the laughter and shouting so unnerved the donkey that it started to thrash around.

The animal struggled so much that the miller and his son could no longer hold it, and the donkey fell off the bridge into the water. The unfortunate donkey drowned, and the miller and his son had to walk all the way home, poorer than they were when they had started their journey. In trying to please everyone, they pleased no one, not even themselves.


Blanchard, K. & Peale, N. (1988). The power of ethical management.
New York: Fawcett Crest.

Dalio, Ray. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Olsen, W. & Sommers, W. (2004). A Trainer’s Companion: Stories to Stimulate Reflection and Conversation. Baytown, TX: AhaProcess, Inc.

Rock, David. (2009). Your Brain at Work. New York: Harper

Rock, D. (2010). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others (Vol. 1). The NeuroLeadership Journal. Retrieved from

Slap, Stan. (2010). Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. New York: Penguin.


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