“When we set these values, it gave people something to hold on to. I wasn’t the only one making decisions, and we had to move quickly. These values give a guide to people because there were so many others in the university who had to make decisions. We were all making decisions we’ve never made before, but I felt if we make them using these three values, we can’t go wrong.”  -Chancellor Donde Plowman, University of Tennessee

It was the worst of times – those early days of the COVID pandemic when leaders faced a crisis that most of us had never   experienced  before. It was then that Chancellor Plowman laid the groundwork for the uncertainty of the days that followed by challenging leadership to be creative, compassionate, and flexible. These are the three values that they consistently used to drive decisions as they dealt with the uncertainty.

As someone whose work is steeped in Values Based Leadership, I was inspired by the courage, transparency, and authenticity of the team working to make decisions for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) through the lens of these three values. Chancellor Plowman started weekly livestreams to communicate effectively  and invited the campus and community at large into the process of their values based decision making. The livestreams provided just the right amount of challenge and support. Leaders from all areas of the university including the UTK Health Center joined Chancellor Plowman to share data, guidance, and information on where things stood. They asked, Are we being creative? How are we demonstrating compassion? Where can we be flexible? The spirit of the livestreams always anchored back to these three values. It was not always good news, but it was always honest news delivered with compassion.

Why did UTK choose the values of  creativity, compassion, and flexibility to lead through a pandemic? In Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins noted that when he began to rip apart the data, looking for some consistent set of core values that were the same across all the built-to-last visionary companies he found a big fat zero. Each great company had a timeless set of values, but there wasn’t one single value that was consistent across all organizations. What the data did find is that it does matter that you have values, that you are passionately committed to them, and that your behaviors and practices align with those values. I’m not sure how or why UTK chose the three values that they did, but it’s evident that they are passionately committed to living and leading in alignment with those values..

Because of their commitment, Chancellor Plowman and Dr. Spencer Gregg (Director of the UTK Student Healthcare Center) were recently recognized as two of the Knox.biz 2021 Health Care Heroes award recipients. The impact of their work extended well past the boundaries of the university into the heart of the surrounding community.

As a leader, I’m appreciative of their example of Values Based Leadership. As the parent of a student at UTK, I’m grateful for the creativity, flexibility, and compassion and know that my son is in good hands.


Wendy Berenson

Wendy Berenson

Wendy brings over 20 years of expertise in training and development, facilitation, and Human Resources to the InnerWill team and the clients we serve. She has a passion for helping leaders develop a culture of engaging employee experiences and has a unique knack for identifying the strengths of others and helping them reach their highest potential.

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