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How to Create Cultures of the Willing

by Dan Gregory & Kieran Flanagan

Many of our business models and leadership strategies are based on expectations and educations that are no longer relevant. We are currently engaged in a revolution, the equivalent of the industrial revolution that changed the world a century ago, yet many of us are failing to adapt and evolve.

There are many businesses and individuals in the world today who are the new blacksmiths – they just don’t realize it yet.

When we began our business careers some 25 years ago, we were promised the hierarchical model of leadership – us at the top, obedient minions beneath us. But this is not the model of leadership that has shown up.

In fact, as jobs for life become a thing of the past, recruitment and retention become issues more for employers that employees, and new generations have greater choice (which of course leads to greater demands), our model of leadership has fundamentally shifted and not all of us who lead are enjoying it.

We always like to start our work with organizations all around the world with an Impossible Question:

“What if consumers had to pay to engage without marketing? What would that look like?”

“How could we make customers love bad customer service?”

“Who would we have to be as leaders that people donated their time to our cause, or even paid to join up?”

These questions allow us to challenge preconceived prejudices and biases but also allow us to explore what’s possible beyond what we already know.

This last question informs much of what we’re seeing inside large organization in terms of the kind of leaders who thrive and command loyalty and enthusiasm and those who are struggling with a more positional definition of leadership – leadership by “title.”

So, how do we create cultures of the willing?

1. Demonstrate who you help them to be, not just what you want them to do

This can be immensely frustrating for leaders raised in the old school of hierarchy or command and control. It’s immensely tempting to scream, “Just do what you’re told!” as you might do with a toddler. However, this requires a level of vigilance and supervision that makes the toddler analogy even more important.

Contrast that with an explanation of who you help them to be. Firstly, this aligns with how human behavior originates. We don’t act logically or even entirely emotionally, we act in accordance with who we believe ourselves to be and who we want to project to the world that we are. This makes maintaining desired behavior much simpler and in fact has a bias towards success.

But more than that, it also creates a greater sense of buy in. When Steve Jobs suggested that it was far better to be a pirate than to join the navy, he immediately identified the kind of staff who should apply, but also the kind of attitude and behavior that characterized being “a Mac.”

2. Align desired behaviors with their values

What informs our identity is the values we have collected throughout our lives. These are incredibly entrenched and even when they defy logic or even good sense, they can be hard to shift or fight against.

It is far better to design our processes and systems in such a way that they align with staff and customer values. Not only does this increase buy in, it stimulates performance as you’re essentially asking people to act out of selfish intent.

3. Create cultural iconography and ritual that allows your staff and customers to evangelize and manage on your behalf

Human beings are designed to tribe. The less our the corporate experience we offer is generic and cookie cutter and the more we create unique cultural activity, the more likely our people are to believe that they are part of something special.

Culture creation is far from a soft skill, it is something the most effective leaders understand and invest their time in.

In truth, the leadership of an organization can be experienced at every touch point – a culture of the willing, of the voluntary, or the enthusiastic is a direct result of the kind of leader you are.

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