Building Strong Cultures

Leaders in Every Role

Gone is the lone leader to save the day. Gone is command and control forcing, coercing, and bribing. To create the cultures that will survive in the future, we must play the long game of leadership.

We have entered a time where our baseline level of skill and conceptual abilty is high enough to understand that we need to work together: bottom-up, top-down, and sideways. We must all be leaders.

Leading from every role is not a common practice in the world today. It requires skillful groups of motivated individuals working together to navigate organizational complexities and manage their impact on the world. To create the cohesive, strong, and resilient culture of the future, we must practice this new way of leading.

Culture is hard, but not impossible, to measure. It contains three elements that when mixed in the right proportions have the desired effect.

  • Strong culture starts with a desire for something to be different than it is today. A vision of the future we long to see.
  • Then comes structure – speaking the same language. Important words that define our vision and the path forward must have a commonly understood meaning and a behavioral description of what they look like in practice.
  • Practice is really the foundation of any culture. We must be in conscious practices that lead us in the direction of our purpose.

Building culture is based on the idea that leadership – of an organization, country, or family – is a process of social influence, not a role. Anyone in any system can be a leader. Through their social influence, this person has the abilty to enlist the aid and support of others to accomplish a common task.

To socially influence other people, the leader has acquired a skillset – a way of doing. They can communicate a compelling outcome, process, and structure for engagement. Before they apply their skillset, they must have a mindset – a way of believing – that their outcome can be accomplished.

Social influence is the tool we have to change the world. Force is relic of the past. Teaching all people how to consciously lead in any and every position is the key to building strong and resilient cultures.


The first step in building a strong culture is desire. The group of people must have a longing, a compelling reason why putting effort into culture is important to them.

Trust me, with any endeavor there will be doubt along the path. The desire must be strong enough to move through the periods of doubt and stay committed. If you shift gears due to your fear, you erode any progress you have made with your culture. There will be times where you will question your efforts, the cost, and the time. You must stick to the long game for creating a strong and resilient culture.

At Opal Food and Body Wisdom, the women who lead this business have a deeply compelling reason to put effort into culture. They hold people lives in their hands. The life and death role all people in their organization plays daily reminds them of the importance of a connected structure of care. Leaders can be in every role – even the patients.

Their desire is to contribute to a world where all are able to live fully with security, freedom, attunement, and connection. This is their deeply unique reason for being a company in the world today. This gets them up each day and brings them in to do good work building people up in world that continually breaks people down.


The second step is structure. Creating a common language. A mission, vision, and values that will guide you.

Few organizations use mission, vision, and values effectively. To be effective, they must be a daily practice. Something to return to when you get confused about your success, failure, what to decide, or how to proceed. They are the foundation and the structure for your business. They must be compelling and relevant. They must ask something of all people that work for and with you. This ask must be clear, understood, and behaviorally specific: why you are here, where you are going, and how you will get there.

Green Canopy Homes takes vision, mission and values seriously. Each year since their inception in 2010, they have set aside a half-day for their whole staff to gather and recommit to the mission and vision, and create a set of values and mantras – behaviors in action – that will help them live into it.

The mission and vision change infrequently. They shifted a few times in the early years to become crisp. Recently, the mission and vision went through an overhaul to represent their changing role in the world.

Green Canopies values are created annually at the whole-staff retreat. Some values carryover from year-to-year, but what changes is the mantras – the behaviors people will exhibit when living into the values.

Green Canopy gets specific with what success looks like in practice. Take their value of authentic communication. There are four mantras that describe what I will be doing when I am living into that value. One is “have hard conversations now.” This mantra is discussed at their monthly leadership development meeting. All team members are given a practical skill to have a hard conversation now. This becomes the common language. All individuals now have permission and are encouraged to be an influential leader. It shapes everyone’s daily practices around skills that help them live into that value.


The third step is regular practice. Daily conversational practices are required to live into the values that lead to the accomplishment of the mission and vision and the fulfilment of the desire.

Conversational practices are structures that guide people through common relational challenges like giving and receiving feedback, managing conflict, seeing another’s point of view, and listening to understand. An entire organization is taught the same practices. No matter who we run into in our day-to-day work life, we all know how to give and receive feedback, it is a practice – even if we choose not to go there.

In this way people all learn to speak a common language. These known conversational daily practices become habit for people. As they do, the structures fade into the background and the communication between people rises. These practices build trust.

In any business, whatever you do, at its core, is about relationship. At Microsoft, a global Fortune 50 company, people come from many backgrounds. Though this brings an amazing cultural diversity, it ensures that most will interpret the world differently.

Everyone can communicate, but there is not a similar structure of communication, which feels like a different organizational language.

When conversational practices are explicitly taught and practiced, people learn a common language to communicate their actions, thoughts, and feelings, and interpret and speak to those of others. This creates a foundation of similar capabilities leading to productive dialogue and efficient workplace exchanges.

Though not a global company cultural practice, over our 13 years of work there, we see leaders who use these practices everyday to their advantage. They are the ones promoted and relied upon for their leadership. They are the ones making cross company connections and driving successful businesses. They are the leaders weaving the culture that strengthens the company.


Over the years, we have been regularly surprised by the impact of a compelling desire, the structure of a common language, and daily practice on weaving a strong cultural fabric to withstand local and global set-backs. Anything can happen with these three ingredients.

People often remark that not only is their work life more satisfying, but their home life has gotten easier too. They have better skills in all areas of life.

This impacts everything. Through practice with their employees, their children, and all people with whom they interact, they are influencing the leaders of the future.

Opal has been a leader in their field, steadily growing since its inception and doing so consciously. Though they experience bumps regarding growth – get bigger or stay manageable? And staff challenges. They are continually in a conversation about how to create a strong culture where people feel supported, but not catered to. They handle these conversations while maintaining their desire to be healthy inside and out – balancing family, work, and community. Their strong desire to be the change they hope to see in the world fuels their success.

Green Canopy is a risk taker. They have a bold vision and innovative ideas to achieve their vision. When they run into obstacles to their success they do a hard stop. A conscious structural practice. They created S2S – Slow-down-to-Speed-up. A practice that happens when they spot challenges that have thread throughout the entire company. For as long as it takes, they shut down all operations, gather the entire staff, and use the conversational practices we taught them – their common language – to decipher what is happening and where. This is a huge risk, but every time they come out stronger and more connected than before.

At Microsoft, they are a forerunner in global conversation. With 124,000 people employed world-wide, they are a leader in trying to create a common language to empower all to communicate effectively, efficiently, and create a global platform. Though leadership practices are not pervasive or common throughout the entire company, they are a microcosm of what it is like to change a large culture – say a country or state or political institution. Change takes time. It takes a continual, long-game commitment to practicing something new, teaching it to future generations, and weaving it into the fabric of everything you do. This provides and anchor to return to when the complexity gets overwhelming. A calm in the storm of the world. If Microsoft is trying, so can you.

Investing in the future, not only for yourself, but for the benefit of all, is not a small task. What is a company for if not to change the world? Maybe you have reached a level of success in the work you do. Are you consciously bringing everyone along? Is there a deeper longing?

We believe much more can be done. Not more time spent – more effective time spent communicating what is vital and important by understanding your longing, speaking a common language, and being in conscious practices. This will help you become the leader of the future.

Socially influence the world through your strong and resilient culture. Be the envy of others. Accomplish the common task of being a successful and conscious business working in harmony with the world around it. Your dream is possible. You just have to practice.



Foundations of Leadership Development: Part One

The Beginning: Mindset and Skillset

To be a leader, we believe there is a foundational set of skills needed to navigate the complexities of  business, social, and cultural challenges in today’s world. These foundational skills allow a person to be a flexible leader. One who has access to the best of themselves and has the ability to bring out the best in others.

The best may not always be a smiling face. Occasionally you might need to get into an argument with another person to stand for your point of view. In this situation, it is good to know what is at stake for you and what your options are in managing conflict. These are skills you learn in our courses.

This foundational skillset will allow you to take appropriate action, behave in productive ways, and increase your strategic capabilities when dealing with common challenges that occur in any group.

Though to apply the skillset associated with conflict for example, you must also have a mindset that conflict is productive.

Mindset is a series of beliefs, mental models, and personal narratives you have about the way the world is or should be. If you have the mindset that conflict is scary, it is unlikely you will apply the skillset as you are habituated to avoiding conflict.

This mindset has served you over the years. You have developed a competency, a skillset, around your mindset to avoid, deflect, or diffuse conflict. This skillset may be useful in many situations. Yet, as a leader in a complex world, you may need to expand your skillset to have more choices in how you manage conflict and shift your mindset to accepting conflict as a method of engagement to make the skillset possible.


We believe “leadership is a process of social influence where one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”[1] Nowhere in this definition does it mention that you must have a certain role to be a leader.

In healthy systems, leaders are everywhere. They are not the oligarchical leaders who command and control. They are the flexible leaders mentioned above. The leaders who have choices in their mindset and skillset and use these choices to create the best outcomes from every situation – even if they are not faced with good choices.

As leaders, there are choices we make all day long to drive the business need. We also – whether we are conscious of it or not – make choices to drive the relationship needs. These choices can sometimes be at odds.

Be speedy but gather everyone’s opinion – means you may miss some perspectives, shorten some conversations, cut some corners in relationship to satisfy the goal of speed. Or the opposite – spend too much time mired in the relationship and neglect to finish on time.

These are called competing commitments. They can range from disturbingly complex to mindbogglingly simple. As a leader, we must become aware of and comfortable with this tension to successfully navigate any business.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset – Implicit Bias

To be a leader in the world, and socially influence others through balancing business and relationship needs, we must be influencable. A growth mindset is required.

A fixed mindset means we believe there is only one way to do something and if we cannot achieve it that way, it cannot be done. Failure is not an option.

A growth mindset allows for flexibility in the way something gets done. This promotes innovation, failure, and alternative ways of doing and being.

What each individual believes to be possible is shaped by their early lived experiences. We see the world through a particular lens. Everyone’s lens is unique to them, though they may contain similarities of experience, we can never have the same exact perspective – even if we are identical twins from the same family.

This shaping is called implicit bias. We all have one. A blind spot. Through having a growth mindset, we can learn about our lens. When our mindset is fixed, we are limited in what we learn about our self, others, or the world. This leads to a general sense of distrust of people and systems.

Because our response to any situation is based on our mindset, skillset, and implicit biases, we have limited capabilities. We can expand these capabilities, expand our lens, and decrease our bias through the practice of directing our attention.

Directing Our Attention – Commitment

When we direct our attention somewhere, energy follows. If I ask you to place your attention on your feet. You will likely feel something in your feet. This is the power of our attention.

Was there something happening in your feet all along or did you manifest that through your attention? The answer is both.

Most of us do not actively direct our attention anywhere other than to a task. We let the relationship aspects of our life move through our minds like wildfires. Burning, disrupting, and challenging our belief in our self, others, and the world. We have no way to understand how the fire got started nor contain the fire.

Commitment, goals, objectives are helpful ways of directing our attention, but focusing these goals on the relationship aspect of being a balanced leader is rarely done well. We must commit to not only the task, but the relationship as well.


To grow as a leader, we often travel through some very uncomfortable stages when mastering certain concepts. First, we are unconsciously incompetent – we don’t even know we don’t know something.

Then we gain awareness and become consciously competent. This part is painful. As we expand the lens through which we see the world and subsequently reflect on our lives. When we do this, we see the times when we moved through the world unconscious. This can lead to regret and a strong desire to hide; coupled with a knowing that repair is possible through the new skills we are learning.

The next stage is consciously competent. This means we are actively directing our attention via our commitment to mastering a certain skill. We are open to learning from others. We are settled with making mistakes because we know where we are headed.

Eventually, depending on how much we practice, we achieve an unconscious competence. This is where we use the skills and have the mindset without needing to think very much about it. A lovely place to be. And we become more comfortable knowing that growth happens all throughout our lives. Which means sooner than we like we will be back at unconscious incompetence.


To grow into the leader we hope to become takes practice. We must name a growth state – a commitment. We must know why it is important to get there. We must know what it will look like when we arrive. And then we must practice. Which means occasionally failing.

This is where a supportive community comes into play. Whether this is a family system, a faith community, a workplace, or a neighborhood, if we practice in a place where others are also learning, we can catalyze something very few people ever get to feel – a growth culture.

When we are in a culture that encourages growth, we all exponentially boost our learning capability. Our neural networks work not only through practice of the skills our self and the shifting of our mindset. They also work limbically through our mirror neurons. If we are committed to something deeply important to our growth, and so are others in our community, together we build the neural capacity for collective growth.

We forward our ability through community. We become leaders with social influence not only with what we do and say, but also with simply who we are. Now this is powerful leadership.

This builds the body and mind of a leader who can stand in the face of disruption, make choices, build relationships, and achieve the tasks at hand.  This is the leader the world needs.

[1] Chemers, Martin M. An Integrative Theory of Leadership. 1997: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Marwah, NJ.