Values-Based Leadership Sets the Tone of Instruction at Gold College

Values-Based Leadership Sets the Tone of Instruction at Gold College

By Victor Shewchuk (University of Alberta Senior Advisor for Organizational Learning and Effectiveness) and Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons (President, CCS Consulting Inc.)


Gold College, a leadership program at the University of Alberta, was launched in 2011 as a means of helping empower academic staff at the school. Unique for its length and breadth, the Gold College program is transforming the university by providing academics with the tools they need to navigate the reality of budget cuts, decreased staffing, and demographic and technological change. In the second piece in our four-part series, we look at how Values-Based Leadership sets the tone and reach of Gold College. Next time: how the program helps participants assess their values and use stories to lead.

Gold College has twelve gatherings (also known as workshops) from September to June. Most of these get-togethers require a full day of teaching and dialogue. Their titles: Orientation, Values-Based Leadership, Leading With Emotional Intelligence, Building Effective Teams, Leading Strategically, Managing Human Resources, Financial Planning and Leading Change, Facilitative Leadership, Triage Leadership and Coaching, Conflict Management, Adaptive Leadership, and Graduation.

The second session, Values-Based Leadership (VBL) sets the tone and tenor for the program.

VBL has been a major trend in organizational development over the last 30 years, especially since 2008, the beginning of the global financial crisis, when many organizations began re-thinking their goals and processes, and embedding values more deeply in their structure. The scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter comments, “Values turn out to be the key ingredient in the most vibrant and successful” of today’s organizations.

One of the fathers of Values-Based Leadership is Dr. Brian P. Hall, who, in the 1970s, working with a team of leaders from several religions, mapped 125 values that are foundation stones for human life—ideals that shape us—including safety, security, family, creativity, empathy, patriotism, altruism, equality, relaxation, synergy, truth, and so on. In the ’80s, Hall co-created the Hall-Tonna Inventory of Values, which is today a widely-used questionnaire for measuring and ranking a person’s values (it’s used by Gold College, as we shall see in the third installment of this four-part series).

“Values turn out to be the key ingredient in the most vibrant and successful of today’s organizations."

Hall’s work contributed to a blossoming of useful studies of leadership starting in the ’90s, including articles in the journal The Leadership Quarterly (founded in 1990), and a plethora of books—for example Values-Based Leadership by Susan Smith Kuczmarski and Thomas D. Kuczmarski (1995), Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value by Bill George (2004), and The High Impact Leader: Authentic, Resilient Leadership That Gets Results and Sustains Growth by Bruce J. Avolio and Fred Luthans (2006).

Authenticity is at the core of Values-Based Leadership. Authentic leaders, according to VBL theory, are open, accessible, candid, aware of their flaws, comfortable being seen by the world, and in touch with their best instincts rather than their darkest fears. They’re “confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, moral/ethical, future-oriented,” write Avolio and Luthans. They have a sense of purpose that transcends greed or career advancement. They care about the impact of their actions on others. They tend to be good listeners. They are unfazed by feelings of vulnerability. They share power—they happily help their associates hone leadership skills and welcome the unleashing of a subordinate’s strength.

Values-Based Leadership is a strong platform from which to answer employee questions and worries: “Is our leader really interested in the long term, or is he/she just here for short-term gains—to pad the CV, to cash in some stock options?” “Does our leader walk the walk of shared leadership, or does she/he merely talk the talk?” “Does our leader have what it takes—the energy, the speaking skills, the intuitive feel for what our customers want?”

As Gold College teaches VBL, one of its main lessons is that people and organizations can shift values—can evolve to higher values. For example, they can move from requiring strict hierarchy to enjoying a decentralized organization. They can shift from placing a high value on self-preservation to embracing altruism and service to others. They can evolve from focusing on security, certainty, let’s-do-it-by-the-book, let’s-do-it-the-way-it’s-always-been-done—“This is where most companies and organizations live, even today,” says Victor Shewchuk, senior advisor for organizational learning and effectiveness at the University of Alberta and a co-author of this article—to putting new emphasis on playful open-ended inquiry, creativity, ambiguity, doubt, messiness, newness, partial answers.

In other words, embracing Values-Based Leadership is empowering Gold College graduates to look at old problems in new ways and to confront the realities of budget cuts and understaffing with a more creative mind-set. But before any of this can take place, participants must first understand what drives them.

Next: How Gold College helps participants assess their values and use stories to lead.

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