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Center for Enlightened Leadership

I Believe

  Maybeth Conway
  Maybeth Conway
Senior Associate

The year is 1992. The place is a sleepy little rural community in central New Jersey. I am a staff development leader in a small public school district. I work hard and aim to please.

It’s Monday morning and the phone rings. The secretary to the superintendent tells me curtly that I need to be in his office at 4 p.m. sharp. My stomach lurches and my palms get sweaty. I maintain my outward composure long enough to complete the call and then shift into full panic mode. What could I have done (or not done) that would warrant this summons from on high? For the next six hours, I fret. Finally, at 3:50, on wobbly knees, I head over to the central administration building to learn my fate.

At exactly 4:00, I’m beckoned into the superintendent’s office. On first blush, he doesn’t appear to be too angry. In fact, he looks like he might even be happy to see me. Now I’m confused. He motions for me to sit down at his work table while he gathers some materials from his desk. He returns to the table, hands me a book, smiles, and says, “We have some exciting work to do.”

The superintendent is Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow. The book is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Dr. Stephen R. Covey.

Fast forward to 2010. Thankfully, my knees no longer wobble when I’m summoned by Steve Sokolow. In fact, when he let me know that this issue of the Lens would center on the topic of mission or purpose, his assignment immediately triggered some very pleasant memories of the shared reading, discussions, and faculty study groups that flowed from that fateful meeting and my introduction to Covey’s bestselling book. My recollections soon turned to one of the fundamental concepts of Covey’s famous primer on leadership and change. They also spurred me to revisit a treasured if somewhat dusty list that I completed in 1994. It was titled “I Believe.”

In the first chapter of 7 Habits, Dr. Covey introduces the terms Character Ethic and Personality Ethic. He describes the former as a collection of principles and beliefs that are the foundation of lasting success and gives examples that include integrity, fidelity, temperance, and industry. He contrasts this notion with the more prevalent Personality Ethic, which holds that success flows from learned attitudes and behaviors, skills, and techniques that promote effective human interactions. He suggests that a Personality Ethic is often superficial and manipulative while the sincere Character Ethic is foundational and catalytic. He holds that sustained personal effectiveness must rest on a firm base of principled personal beliefs (pp. 18-19).

In the 7 Habits study-group materials, Covey encourages group members to develop a personal belief statement that includes the principles that are most compelling to them. He acknowledges that this challenging task should be undertaken with a great deal of patience, honesty, and reflection. He recommends that each person develop a list that includes no more than 6 to 12 statements. He warns against platitudes and flowery, idealistic jargon that does not truly reflect the author’s uniqueness. He calls on the writer to be brutally honest. He suggests that creating a thoughtful list of belief statements may take weeks, months, or even years; if it is done well, however, it will capture the essence of the individual, clearly distinguish him or her from others, and serve as a foundation for personal and professional effectiveness. It will guide the leader in the pursuit of a principled mission or purpose. 

From challenging personal experience, I can attest to the rigors of this task. Many members of our faculty and administrative study group set out to create a personal statement of beliefs; many of them gave up quickly. Others stayed with the activity but complained that it was much harder than it looked. A few of us persevered until we had a finished list that we could live with comfortably. In my case, it took over a year to create my final draft.

For me, the process was both painstaking and rewarding. I dreamed up and discarded hundreds of possible statements that didn’t quite hit the mark. Many of those statements were actually quite admirable. Unfortunately, they were not a good fit for me. Others captured noble principles that I wished I believed in deeply, but the truth was that my actions did not reflect such nobility. After endless edits and revisions, I finally arrived at a list that seemed to fit. With relief and a sense of accomplishment, I printed my list, shared it with a few trusted friends and colleagues, and tucked it in the pages of my journal to serve as an occasional reminder of the beliefs that I try to hold central and dear. With a bit of shyness, I share that list.

I Believe

  • I believe that kindness is the greatest gift we bring to those whose lives we touch.
  • I believe that any task worth doing is worth doing well.
  • I believe that honesty and justice are the cornerstones of all true and loving relationships.
  • I believe that each of my choices affects the universe, however subtly.
  • I believe that life is a continuous journey of learning and refinement. On this journey, we must seek to balance our progress physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • I believe that our most intimidating challenges are often the source of our greatest growth.
  • I believe in the healing power of reflection and prayer.
  • I believe that there’s magic in a warm smile and a cheerful disposition.
  • I believe that life should be perceived with awe and celebrated with joy.

       As I once again review my 1994 belief statements, it’s reassuring to see how well they have withstood 16 years of my aging process; they still fit me pretty well. While I could make some additions, deletions, or minor adjustments, I think I’ll just leave well enough alone. Instead, I would like to encourage others to embrace the challenging process of developing their own personal lists that will serve as the firm foundation for whatever missions may follow. Meanwhile, I’ll just recommit to the equally daunting task of living the beliefs that I hold dear.

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