After a 10-year study of over 24,000 employees across multinational corporations, our team came to a startling conclusion about leadership: the more you develop yourself as a leader, the less of a leader you are.
How could this be? We ourselves were dumbfounded when we asked the leaders of Fortune 500 companies for the key to their success. They each had the same answer: “Don’t ask me. I didn’t do anything!”
Finally, however, the answer became very clear: the leader does not shape the organization. It’s the culture.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, any day of the week. So the successful leaders were the ones who stopped focusing on themselves, and created a world class culture. This made their leadership appear “effortless” to both them and everyone around them because they leveraged the strength of the entire group, or as we say, “tribe.”
This leads to a very important finding: if you are empowering yourself instead of your tribe, you are hurting your company.
So it doesn’t matter how many books you read, it doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, it doesn’t even matter if you are strong at execution. You could be checking off to-do’s left and right with efficiency that would make David Allen cry, and yet still you would not create a thriving organization.
We now know the key to having a world class organization is to develop a world class culture. But what is culture exactly? And where can it be seen?
A better question is actually where can culture be heard, because culture lives in language. If you think about it, most of our work is made up of communication…emails, meetings, documents, proposals, instructions… they all live in the domain of language.
After 10 years of study we realized there are 5 stages of language that determine the culture of the tribe:
Stage 1 – “Life sucks”
Here, people say life is unfair, and to survive, anything is permissible. Stage 1 runs the show in criminal clusters, like gangs and prisons, where the theme is “life sucks,” and people act out in despairingly hostile ways. In a corporate sense, this could be seen in the Post Office during the early 90’s.
Stage 2 – “MY life sucks.”
People in this stage are passively antagonistic, crossing their arms in judgment yet never getting interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic, resigned. Their speech deflects accountability, instead placing blame for their situation on others.
Stage 3 – “I’m great”
“I’m great” or, more fully, “I’m great, and you’re not.” People at this stage have to win, and winning is personal. They’ll out-work, think, and manoeuvre their competitors. The mood that results is a collection of “lone warriors,” wanting help and support and being disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. Most every sentence includes “I,” “me,” or “my,” as in: “I work harder than anyone else,” “I try harder,” and “I’m really good at my job.”
Stage 4 – “We’re great.”
Stage 4 is the zone of Tribal Leaders who focus people on their aspirations, and define measurable ways to make a worldwide impact. At Stage Four, people use “we” language, and the basis of comparison is shared values. For example, you’ll hear: “We’re doing important work,” “we work harder for our customers,” and “we win because we’re more dedicated.” Stage 4 is by all accounts a superior culture. However there is one higher stage, the upper echelon of organizations that is rarely achieved. This is where the language shifts from “we’re better” to “we can make a global impact.”
Stage 5 – “Life is great.”
Teams at Stage 5 have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was Stage 5, and we’ve seen this mood at Amgen. At Stage 5, values and vision are the only compass—not relative benchmarks against a competitive group. You’ll hear “we’re pioneers—no one has been here before,” “our mission is all that matters,” and “if we didn’t have our values, we wouldn’t know who we are.” The ultimate goal is for a tribe to arrive at Stage 5. It is the place where organizations stand to change the world.
As a leader, you may want to go directly to Stage 5. However, once you understand the culture of your organization, it is only possible to go from one stage to the next. In other words, if you are working with people at Stage 2 who believe their life sucks (you can hear it in phrases as simple as “I have way too much to work to do.”) your role as a Tribal Leader it to advance them to Stage 3 where they realize they’re great. Only then can they advance to Stage 4 as a team player.
Now that you know the language cues, listen for them in your own company, and hear how the tribal culture and the success of the company go hand in hand.
Dave Logan is the author of Tribal Leadership, the new book from Harper Collins that is breaking the mould on how to lead and manage companies. You can learn how to upgrade your tribe by joining the Tribal Coaching Community.