BLG Leadership Insights Features

Proactive Leaders Must Preserve Core Values

I’ve been noticing an interesting phenomena that should raise the red flag for those leaders who in these austere times may overemphasize control, coordination, and cutbacks in the interests of running a tight ship.

Here’s an example:

A friend of mine has been director of painting and drawing at an institute for fine arts for over 30 years.  He has made his reputation over the last 20 years by emphasizing the training of talented artists, with a particular focus on developing skills of young artists as they pursue their own expression and career path.

To enhance the reputation of the institute as a place that values artistic development, twice a year the institute sponsors an open house show that many collectors and gallery owners frequent.  Occasionally, curators of smaller, but reputable museums attend.  For years there was synergy between the students and the faculty. Both groups saw themselves as artists sharing a common dialogue.  The strength of the institute had been its commitment to core values and understanding that its niche was unique.

Over the last two years, like many other organizations, the institute has faced some tough times.  The newly installed director of the advisory board has implemented a policy based on cost reduction and revenue enhancement.  Cost reduction is to be achieved by reducing the support staff, eliminating teaching positions, increasing class size, and suspending the studio show.  The mindset was one that implied that the institute hit an iceberg on the high sea, had to batten down the hatches, save what they could, and abandon the rest.  Doomsday had arrived.

In this instance, the cure may be worse than the disease.  Some of the best teachers, who taught as a supplemental activity, are leaving.  The most talented students are questioning whether this is the right place for them.  The very values that the institute have striven for and sustained over the years are now, at best, being ignored.

Nowhere was this move from core values more evident than in new-student recruiting.  Now the admissions process has been reduced to one simple rule: getting warm bodies with checkbooks into the seats.  While there is still a token commitment to critical evaluation of the applicant’s portfolio, it is not as serious or as thorough as before.  The irony is that even though the economy is weak, students are drawn to the classroom because there is nowhere else to go.  Even though the institute could be more selective, in its anxiety over enhancing revenue, has chosen to dilute its criteria and standards.

The strategy is simple:  the institute will survive the recession, and when it is over, the institute will return to its core values.  The problem is that once core values are abandoned, especially from the top-down, it becomes impossible to regain them.  Trust has been lost, community is gone, and momentum dissipates.  Instead of asking themselves a single question, “How do we survive in this hard time?”, leadership needed to ask more and better questions: “How can we build on the strength of our core values?”, “How can we build on the commitment of our staff and students?” ,” How can we enhance the sense of community?” ,”What sacrifices do we all need to make?”

The short-term strategy of the institute will change the course of the ship, but kill its spirit.  Proactive leaders understand that while cost-cutting is important, it must be done carefully while preserving the core and spirit of the organization.  In the worst of economies, there is always a day after.

Picture Credit: Smithsonian

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