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  • Otto Reinisch

Values are Forged in the Crucible of Crisis - Not the Boardroom

“Our response to today's crisis will be the footprints of leadership for new generations to follow.”

For too many nonprofit boards, clarifying organizational values is an intellectual exercise only done as part of strategic planning.

This is a mistake.

The 'safe', often-predictable results aren't memorable, they seldom reflect reality, and they fail to differentiate the organization.

Authentic values-based leadership begins when nonprofit boards thoughtfully and intentionally discern values that ignite passion as they “open a window into the organization’s soul”.1

Try This: A Different Path Forward

With the board’s help, produce a timeline for the organization starting with its inception. Identify times it responded to significant accomplishments but, more importantly, really focus on how it survived in the darkest times. Why? Because values are forged and tested in the crucible of crisis.

Dig deep. Do research, if necessary. Ask tough, open-ended, probing questions. What sacrifices were made? Who were the leaders? Listen for stories of heroism. What did the organization not do? Why? Identify and make a list of the values reflected in each response.

Your board quickly will realize how their response to today’s crisis will define the organization for “people they may never know, in a time they will never see.”2 Their actions will be the footprints of leadership left behind for new generations to follow.

The ultimate question is, "Do we respond in ways that honor the past or that create a new future?" This is real, generative board work.

For newer organizations without a long history, develop a case study using a hypothetical situation. Divide the board into groups. Ask each group to independently describe how the organization should respond. Have them present their work to the board. How much consensus is there?

Identify and make a list of the values behind each group’s response, again digging deep with probing questions. Pay attention to the discussion that ensues. What energizes the board? What threatens it? Is everything open for discussion? What values come out on top?

Whether you use a timeline or case study, try to turn the most frequently mentioned values into an action. “For values or guiding principles to be effective they must be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity’, it’s ‘we always do the right thing’. It’s not ‘innovation’, it’s ‘we look at problems from different angles.” [Start With Why, Simon Sinek]

What does each value look like now? Do they reflect reality or do they ring hollow? Will they stand the test of time?

Your values live in the hearts, hopes, and passion of your constituents; not on a plaque mounted on the wall. You have the opportunity to lead in ways that will inspire excellence - even sacrifice - today and for years to come.

Act boldly through this crisis in ways that make known and honor the organization’s authentic values. This is how future generations will measure your success.

An Example of Values-Based Leadership in Action

In 2001, some dialysis patients died soon after using Baxter-produced machines. It wasn’t the swift response to this crisis of CEO Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. that caught everyone off guard, it was how he responded.

“The world, we knew, was watching us, not only the media but also our customers, suppliers, and the health care community at large. How Baxter responded would leave a lasting imprint on the company’s relationship with patients and doctors, with employees and, of course, with investors. The episode would, for better or worse, open a window into Baxter’s corporate soul.” - Values to Action, Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr.

In the midst of crisis, Harry Kraemer put his company’s values into motion by accepting full responsibility and making things right. Today, this is part of his legacy and how many evaluate his tenure as CEO. (read more here).

May we find the same courage and conviction to lead in the days ahead.


In closing, I’ve helped many nonprofit boards exercise meaningful, values-based leadership. Please let me know if you have questions about today’s blog or to talk about ways I can help. Visit www.whywegive.net or write to me at otto@whywegive.net


1, 2 With gratitude to Harry Jansen Kraemer, Jr. and Katherine Tyler Scott for their thoughtful writings about values-based leadership that encourage me and helped inspire today’s blog.

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