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Uncovering Your Core Values
Episode 52

Uncovering Your Core Values

CI to Eye with Ronnie Brooks

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Ronnie and Erik talk about the necessity of taking care of yourself to become a more effective leader. They also discuss the importance of aligning your actions with your core values and the need for creativity and vitality among leaders to meet the vast challenges of nonprofit work.

Erik Gensler: So, I want to start by thanking you for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it. I know how busy you are.

Ronnie Brooks: I’m happy to do this.

Erik Gensler: Ben Cameron, the head of the Jerome Foundation and former head of the Doris Duke Foundation, was on this podcast, and told us about his work with you, which is why I wanted to talk to you and I want to quote him really quickly.

Ben Cameron: I worked with a woman named Ronnie Brooks and she basically changed my life. She came to us with a list of twenty values that we had to rank order, one to twenty. So, what’s most important to you? Family? Money? Expertise? No ties, one to twenty, most important to least important. And she would take that list several months later and said, “Now you rate them 1 to 20 of how you actually spend your discretionary time,” and then she made you put the two lists together. And if you said family’s the most important thing to me on list, and it was number three on the other list, then fine. But if you said family’s the most important thing in number one, but it’s number seventeen over here, your life is out of alignment.

Ronnie Brooks: Well, first of all, Ben gave me undue credit. I didn’t change his life. He changed his own life, which I think is one of the fundamental principles of what we do. No one can ever do this work for you. However, I think it’s exceedingly difficult to do alone, so I believe in the opportunity that we create to give people the chance to interact with others who hold different values or hold the same values in different ways, who practice their work in different disciplines. And that kind of stimulation, which rarely happens in the nonprofit sector, has been critical to the success I think we’ve had. It’s the opportunity for people in the arts to sit next to people and talk about values with people in law enforcement or health or adoption services so that you begin to see that creativity exists outside of a single sector and that if that’s a value that you hold, you would want to encourage that if you’re in theater in the box office, as well as on the stage.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Ronnie Brooks: Just not in accounting.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Right. Creative accounting’s not great.

Ronnie Brooks: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: So, talk to me a bit about this “twenty values” exercise. How did that come into being? Why is that important? How do you use it? I’m just curious, why twenty? (laughs)

Ronnie Brooks: Okay, and those are interesting questions. Let me first say why we do that as one of a series of exercises that we do with the intention of helping people to gain clarity about the values that are important to them and then to see, what are the behaviors that are required in order to actually manifest those values in your life and work? The list of twenty values was developed by somebody named Dick Leider and I use his list, but I think I must have twenty different lists and in a variation that I do sometimes, depending on the group, I have them make their own list of twenty at the beginning of the year and then, later on, ask them to rank-order them. It really doesn’t matter what the list is. What matters is that you’ve got a list of all good things. So, there’s no murder on there. There’s no stealing. You’ve got everything that you think you’re good at and that you care about. And the challenge is to say they’re not all equal, that you can’t pay attention to and live a list of twenty with the consistency that is required for effective leadership and for satisfaction. So, the rank-ordering is a very difficult task in and of itself. And then, to actually see and define, what is it that generosity requires? Is it tithing? Is it making more gifts of your time to people? Is it getting out of the way so that others can have more of what you have had in terms of power or privilege? So that knowing what it is that is required of you to live that value … And then the part two of the exercise, which Ben referred to, was to actually see whether you are using your resources, which are mainly time, talent, treasure—those are the way they’ve been described by others—in service of those values. And many people think that just their work, particularly if they work in the nonprofit sector, meets those requirements, but upon examination, it may not. The process which Ben described of then figuring out what are the changes you might need to make on a regular, if not a daily, basis in order to better exemplify the values you would like to be indicative of your life and work? Maybe I could run through for you some of the things that we do with people that I think are inherently catalysts for the kind of reflection we encourage.

Erik Gensler: Great.

Ronnie Brooks: But the work … And this is also why (laughs) this is a program that has now more others like it. But when we started and we called it the Renewal Institute, people thought it was a drug treatment program.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Ronnie Brooks: It then became the Institute for Renewing Community Leadership and then now named after one of our great patrons, James Shannon. At the very first weekend that we meet the people who are in the program—and we have not met anyone in this cohort of twenty before they appear for the first immersive weekend together … And so, we then have them make, as their first reflective experience, a mask. So we provide some kind of paper mask base and give people the opportunity with paints, sequins, feathers, magazine cutouts to both think about the external face they project to the world—they may do it with color, they may do it with words, whatever it is—and then, on the inner side of the mask, the one that would be pressed up against their face, the inner life they have. So, they do that pretty much on their own. They’re sitting with a group of people cutting magazines, maybe listening to music, and they have a little bit of time to do that. And then, in the evening, we ask them to reflect and share with a partner and then perhaps others, depending on the session it is, to see the compatibility or incompatibility of these two images. Are they able to be fully who they are in the role they play in the external world or is there a disconnect between who they are and how they need to project in the world? And we … I should go back and explain a minute about why this program was invented. We were often, way back in the early 1990s, concerned about the fact that our communities needed creativity, vitality, humanity in their leadership and that the way in which leaders of foundations and nonprofit organizations were working—maybe they were required to work that way, maybe those were the expectations that they placed upon themselves—but our fear was that they were losing that creativity and vitality and energy and that they would die in office and be carried out. But we were even more concerned that they would die in office and keep going to work. And then the rest of us who lived in these communities would be dependent on leadership that wasn’t able to meet the needs of the sector and the sector then unable to fully meet the needs of the community. And that was the origin and the motivation for the Shannon Leadership Institute. And so, what the program is geared to do is to get people thinking more broadly and more differently than the particular discipline or role they were required to do and to do it in a way where they were not publicly embarrassed by their lack of experience. So, when you ask someone to make a mask, for example, you’re not posting it on Facebook, which we didn’t have when we started. It is a private, confidential exercise that catalyzes this thinking. Because what we found was that the burnout or hollow-out or the loss of creativity was really the result of this disconnect between who you are and what you believe in and what you think your success in the world requires. (theme music)

Erik Gensler: It sounds like the work is very personal, ultimately to drive professional outcomes. It sounds like the work is deeply personal. So, I’m interested, how you reconcile that this is a program to help professionals lead, but you’re asking them to do such personal work. How is the personal and professional connected?

Ronnie Brooks: Okay. I think that’s a great question. It comes with our philosophy of what effective leadership requires. And our philosophy says it requires basically three things, the first of which we concentrate on, which is understanding of self. Who am I? What do I deeply believe in? Where did I get those beliefs from? And when I hold them up into the sunlight now, are they the things that I inherited from my parents, teachers, clergypersons or are these things that deeply reflect who I am? And that winnowing process is important. And then, what do those values require of me? So that we’re looking for leaders with integrity. So, we never say, “This is the right position,” or, “These are the good values.” But when you have them, are you really living them? And are you really able to display them to the world? So, understanding of self is the first element of our philosophy. The second is meaningful connections with others. So, whereas the work is very personal, it is personal within the context of a diverse, small community. That’s why diversity of disciplines, not just ethnic background or cultural background, but age, geography, philosophy (laughs) are all important because effective leaders need to relate to diversity, not just to people who share their values and backgrounds. So, meaningful connections takes it beyond the self. And then the third thing, which we get at indirectly, is a commitment to take action. So, this is not something geared just to have you write effective memoirs or grant applications. It is designed to give you the confidence to act effectively for what you deeply believe in. And those three things make it, yes, a personal program, as I said. No one can do this work for you. But you really can’t do it alone. And your commitment to use this work to act on behalf of your belief system is very important to the whole definition of what the institute is about. All of the exercise we use … And the one that we focused on is actually the most direct, but most of the exercises we do are way more metaphorical than the listing of values. And, for example, we may take a group of people canoeing down the Mississippi River, one of the treasures we’re blessed with here in the Midwest. But before we do that, we ask them to explore the watershed, the streams that have flowed into the deep line of current that marks the river and marks their life. So, that’s a reflective element of the program. But we get at it by getting people in canoes. Some are terrified-

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Ronnie Brooks: … some aren’t. We’ve never lost a person yet. But it changes the way they think about who they are, what they’re capable of, and the way in which their values and their life experience apply in a positive or in a limiting way to their experience in the world. So, almost every exercise we do has a deep, metaphorical value. And we don’t give people much homework to do. We’ll rather take a poem than an article, because it’s open to interpretation by individuals, i’s generally shorter, and it tells, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “Tells the truth, but tells it at a slant.”

Erik Gensler: Love that. The program requires leaders to commit to almost a year, right? And requires them to be out of the office a lot. And I think and I’ve read a lot about the value of being out of your day-to-day when it comes to being able to see bigger pictures in order to lead. So, was that a conscientious choice? How did you come to decide the length of the program and the requirement to go somewhere that was away from where most of these leaders spend most of their time?

Ronnie Brooks: We didn’t start that way. We didn’t start as a go-away program. We started with a go-away experience, but it was originally a program just for Minnesotans. And so, we would have this opening retreat and then meet the last Thursday evening for a meal and an evening activity, and all day Friday each month. So, over the course of the year, we’re really asking people to give approximately twelve days to this, and for a person like me, perhaps slower in my thinking than others, that seems like a small amount of time to give to understanding how to live the rest of your life well-

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Ronnie Brooks: … for what you believe in. But it is the biggest obstacle we have to participation. People feel, “Oh, I can’t leave the office for a day. I’m just too important.” And it is exactly that kind of thinking that leads one to a narrower and narrower focus in their lives and work and a loss of that person to a large segment of the community. So, we’ve been very strong in saying that you need to have time for reflection and time for change. You often don’t have a big epiphany. You need to have an observation or a gnawing thought and you need to live with it a while if whatever change you make is going to be lasting. I remember serving on the board of Outward Bound in the Voyager Outward Bound in Minnesota, and going and hanging from a tree and having this epiphany about the way I should live my life. And you come back and pretty soon the life that you’ve embedded yourself in is so strong, you are over-influenced by that. And so-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Ronnie Brooks: … by having people come into the program, go home, do their work, come into the program, go home, do their work, they are able to move and be reinforced in … We just made a guess that that took about a year. Later on, because of some inquiries from people from far away, we agreed that we should include people from a broader geography and so we created a second version of the program. So they both exist. One is still this monthly program and the other is quarterly, where people come from around the country for three days, four times a year. (theme music)

Erik Gensler: I’m curious why you think so many people are misaligned from their core values. Why do we get to this place? And then, following up on that, why is that alignment so particularly important to those in the nonprofit sector?

Ronnie Brooks: The answer to the first, why do I think that people get misaligned? I don’t think there’s some terrible evil in the world, but I do think that we have very limited definitions of success and now that people live a long time and have more choices about the way in which they live in the world, our definitions of success have not reflected that. So, although we tell everyone to follow their bliss, we think that it’s really important for people to go to the right schools, to make the right amount of money, to live in certain neighborhoods, to earn or get titles in their work. And many people who are now in leadership positions were raised with that. I’ve had a number of people who said, “I went back to my high school reunion. My colleagues make a lot more money than I do. They can send their kids to private schools that I can’t do.” And I think, so, that that creates a sense that we should be pursuing the values of the larger culture, which may not be the values that we hold. And I don’t know if the nonprofit sector is all that different, but it is more conflicted for people who join the nonprofit sector because of what they deeply believe and have to, in many ways, sacrifice in order to do the work they think society needs and they are called to do. And one more thing to the second part of your question, why do I think misalignment is important or worth working on? It’s because when we have leaders who believe in something and act in a way that does not reflect those values, number one, we as followers in a democratic society often make the wrong choices. We think someone is for this, but they’re really not. And when they get to be in positions of influence, they don’t act that way. Secondly, for us personally, that’s where pain happens. We are not perfect, but we’re smart enough to know that when we’re doing something that conflicts with something we believe, it causes both pain, which sometimes shows up as cynicism, which sometimes shows up as dishonesty. And I don’t think, and my colleagues don’t believe that that’s the kind of leadership that we want to promote. And that we also, in the work we do in the nonprofit sector, if you’re trying to improve the education system or communicate difficult issues through theater, or deal with abused women and children, this is hard work. And these are not changes that are gonna be made in five years or probably ten and maybe not twenty. And so, you need to have the ability to sustain yourself and your commitment over a long lifestrong, over a long work lifestrong. And I believe that people get energy, hopefulness, vitality from acting in accordance with their deeply held beliefs regardless of the success they have.

Erik Gensler: That’s so true. I love it, and I think it’s so smart, and it’s so important. Right. You need, you need this fulfillment and alignment of your soul in order to do this very difficult work and not get distracted by the more, oftentimes very powerful and enticing messages of the broader culture and many of the people who have not done this work who are in positions of leadership. Do you think that people are born leaders or are most leaders made through doing this kind of deep work?

Ronnie Brooks: I actually have the belief that virtually everyone can provide leadership. And the work we do is not so much oriented towards positional leadership. Can everybody get to be the CEO of their organization? I don’t know, but I do believe that everyone can act effectively with others to move the world, whether that world is a neighborhood or a household, towards what they deeply believe. What helps that is clarity of understanding what you believe and how to act for it in the context in which you find yourself.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Ronnie Brooks: And that’s what we’re working on. And I think that we all have the capacity to do better or worse. If I could give one more example, to save money in the early years of the program, I gathered our groups to cook their own dinner. So, I’d go out and make up some recipes and buy a bunch of food and the group of twenty people would become this self-organizing team to take those recipes, take the bags of groceries, and figure out how to make themselves a dinner. And they acted in the most collaborative way. Some people would set the table, some people would chop the chicken, whatever it was. The next night, I would have them do a simulation called Star Power, which is about a competitive system for maximizing your power. It’s a simulation exercise. The same people who behaved so marvelously well in one context behaved poorly by social norms in the other. And so, it’s a way of saying that individuals need to be aware of the context in which they seek to provide leadership and that people can be deeply influenced by the cultures in which they are operating. And in one, a deeply competitive culture where there was only the potential for two of the twenty to be winners, versus the other, where everybody got enough to eat, the very same people behaved very differently, even though we had just talked about values. And it’s a way of showing that this is regular work. I try and counsel people, since most of us brush our teeth in the morning, to simply name the two or three or one value that they want to live by when they brush their teeth in the morning. And that top-of-mind awareness can influence your behavior, because many of us work in systems that are not oriented to our personal values. They’re not necessarily in conflict. Nobody’s told to go steal. Or very few people are told to go steal (laughs). But to have that reinforcement of how you want to be, whether you’re cooking dinner or playing a competitive simulation, you need to know how to hold your values and stand for them effectively.

Erik Gensler: That’s so important and so deep. And I think the leader of an organization sets the tone and the rules for engagement and if you’re in a place that there’s not a lot of psychological safety or trust, it just impacts the entire organization.

Ronnie Brooks: Right, but the leader of an organization does not always have to be the CEO.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ronnie Brooks: And in fact, one of the things that I think burns out or hollows out CEOs is they think that they need to be the smartest, the most hard-working, and model everything and that is not the most effective way to be a leader. I think the most important thing leaders can do is encourage leadership in others-

Erik Gensler: Definitely.

Ronnie Brooks: … and that also makes their role one that is more sustainable and, I think, more satisfying over the long run.

Erik Gensler: And I would say even giving leadership and recognizing leadership at all levels of the organization.

Ronnie Brooks: Yes, and I think if we had plusher carpets in the nonprofit world and you could see the tracks that people walk, you would often find someone in a cubicle somewhere who’s really providing leadership on certain kinds of issues for the organization and doing it without much recognition, but it’s not always the person at the top. It shouldn’t always be the person at the top. And one of the reasons why in the Shannon Institute we have people do African drumming, we do mask-making, we do cooking, it’s because, I hope, that people will learn the value of allowing different people to lead in situations where they can shine. And it takes a little bit of courage, I think, to let go if you feel as though you’re going to be responsible for everything that happens. But another factor contributing to people’s burning out is that they feel that they are responsible for things way beyond their control and, the flip side, they fail to take responsibility for things that are within their control, particularly their own behaviors, words, and deeds.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. Right. I think that’s so deep. Ben also said that you said it’s terrible when people burn out and leave, but it’s worse when they burn out and stay.

Ronnie Brooks: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: And you would say burnout’s not exhaustion. Burnout’s when you’re disconnected from your core values.

Ronnie Brooks: And because I believe that it’s those values that give you the energy, the creativity, and the effectiveness that leaders require. It’s a hard thing to consistently be for everything. It’s an easier, but nevertheless challenging thing to be consistent for two or three things. And the other values that you hold often flow from the confidence you get from knowing that you are moving in the direction that you want your life to move in.

Erik Gensler: Right. So, beyond Ben’s words about how this program transformed him, I’m curious if you can think about some of the impact you’ve seen from other leaders, or from communities or from organizations.

Ronnie Brooks: Well, I’ll just give you one example, without being too specific, that’s dramatic for a podcast.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Ronnie Brooks: The basic thing I’ve seen is the improvement over time, not always in the arc of the year, of people’s understanding of how precious their life is and how time is not to be wasted and how important it is for them not to martyr themselves and thereby shorten their creative life. And that element, which more popularly now is being called self-care, is not a luxury. It’s a necessity to keep feeding those elements of yourself that contribute to your humanity, your commitment, your energy, and your creativity, all of which are needed for our careers.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ronnie Brooks: I’ll give you one example. This was a person who was in the program who was a, a nun. And it was the canoeing on the Mississippi River day and she was terrified. She’d never been in a canoe. They are kind of tippy (laughs) if you haven’t been in for the first time. And I said, “Well, you know, I can’t. I’m not gonna force you.” But I said, “So what is it that would make this a possible day for you?” And so, she gave me some requirements to put her in a canoe with one of our most experienced guides and I paddled in another canoe right next to her down the part of the river that we went. At the end, after she got out of the boat, she was remarkably quiet and didn’t say anything. So, the next day, or maybe it was the next week, I visited with her to see what her experience was. And when I first made the contact with her, she was going down to the mother house of her order because she realized she had been fighting for a different position of her order on the issue of AIDS and she realized if she could canoe this river, that she could actually go and do this thing that was really important to her and change the policy that had guided that organization. So, that’s a very dramatic example.

Erik Gensler: Love that. So, this is your final question and we call this your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Ronnie Brooks: I’d love to have that opportunity. I think I would say that they should slow down, that they should take time individually and collectively to figure out what they have learned from their experience in life and in work, what they deeply believe in, and how they might work more effectively to reflect what they deeply believe in and to exhibit the values by which they would like to pursue those intentions.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. This has been really enlightening.

Ronnie Brooks: Well, thank you. And I’m actually off to have lunch with Ben this very day.

About Our Guests
Ronnie Brooks
Ronnie Brooks
Founding Director, James P. Shannon Leadership Institute

Ronnie Brooks is the founding director of the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute in Saint Paul, Minnesota where she worked with many non-profit arts leaders. Since her formal retirement earlier this year, she has put her extensive experience to use as a strategic planning, leadership development, and nonprofit governance consultant.

Read more

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