Values and Purpose = Your Foundation and Direction

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tribal Leadership" by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does your organization have specified values and a clear purpose? Are they known and embraced throughout the organization?

Tribal Leadership explores how a tribe or an organization develops, getting stronger and more healthy as it progresses from Stage 1 to Stage 5. At Stage 4, the tribe comes together around shared values and pursues a well-crafted mission. They explicitly recognize themselves as a tribe, and they unify under a strong leader to pursue ambitious goals. According to authors Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King, a tribe must establish values and purpose to stabilize at Stage 4.

Continue reading to learn how to accomplish this in your organization.

Establish Core Values and a Worthy Purpose

First, establish shared values and unite under a worthy purpose. Values and purpose act as the foundation and the direction of the tribe’s work, respectively. When the tribe has that solid ground to start from and an inspiring purpose to pursue, they come together and become more effective and innovative at work.

If you neglect values, the authors say, your company culture will lack a strong foundation. Think of values as the principles you follow no matter what. Without a set of principles to live by, you might do anything to succeed, such as resorting to unethical business practices that prioritize profit over humanity or meaningful work. (Shortform note: An article in the Harvard Business Review describes values as “guiding principles,” and they say that you must stand for them through fair and foul weather alike. Throughout this section, we’ll compare Tribal Leadership to their model of collaborative culture-building, termed “collective ambition.”)

To create and establish your tribe’s values, use these tactics:

  • Tactic #1: Involve the whole tribe. Organize a tribe-wide discussion to figure out what everyone holds dear, not just management. The authors recommend brainstorming with as many tribe members as possible.
  • Tactic #2: Regularly converse about values. This encourages tribe members to continue thinking about the values, and they’ll often suggest nuances, clarifications, and corrections to your definitions. Conversing about values also helps the tribe recognize itself, which gives tribe members a palpable sense of belonging. 
  • Tactic #3: Encourage tribe members to problem-solve with values. Values give everyone a shared reference point from which to evaluate options and act. With this, tribe members can make decisions without managerial oversight, because they’re acting from values. This makes your team more agile, which matters in highly competitive environments where there’s little time for debating every decision.
  • Tactic #4: Uphold your values no matter what. Once you’ve established them, avoid flouting the tribe’s values at any cost. If you do, they lose their power: If leadership isn’t accountable to the values, the whole enterprise will seem hollow and fake. Even when challenging circumstances strain your values, hold fast and uphold them. 
  • Tactic #5: Hire for values. To maintain your Stage 4 tribe, the authors recommend hiring according to your values. Do so by asking questions that prompt an interviewee to express his values, or tell a story that contains your values and ask him for the key takeaways. If he sees your values in the story, you’ve found a good match. 

According to the authors, establishing values is not a one-time task to check off a list. Instead, view values as essential principles to continually live, refocus, and hold yourself accountable to. Return to them as often as you need to, and develop them over time.

Values Form a Core Philosophy

In Built to Last, Jim Collins explains that companies that achieve lasting success operate on a core philosophy—the set of values that guide the company through years, even decades, of business. For more ways to find your values and develop a core philosophy, consider Collins’s steps, which reflect and complement Tribal Leadership’s steps:

Craft your core philosophy with five to seven employees who already exemplify it, as opposed to working with the whole tribe.

Keep it concise. Stating your values plainly and concisely clarifies them for everyone.

Limit yourself to three to six core values. Any more, and it’s no longer an essential core so much as a loose list. 

Collins explains that with a core philosophy established, many top companies create a “cult-like” atmosphere that promotes adherence to those values. Employees who embody the values fit in and find success, while employees who don’t might find themselves asked to leave. While this might seem intense, Collins says that it’s simply part of creating and maintaining a purposeful, values-driven workplace—the benefits, including employee loyalty and commitment to the company’s mission, are well worth it. 

Unite With a Worthy Purpose

After establishing shared values, a Stage 4 tribe must find a worthy purpose—the tribe’s North Star, or overriding direction. The authors say that a worthy purpose should be inspiring and ambitious rather than rational or realistic, since an audacious mission unites people better than an easy, uninspiring aim. There are two methods to create a worthy purpose: 

  • Method #1: Ask what the tribe works in service of. Dig past people’s surface-level ambitions and find the deeper, shared ambitions. This helps you strip away profession-specific aims—being a great doctor, being an innovative designer—to more universal aims. For instance, you might find that beneath surface-level aims, your tribe members all want to work toward a saner, kinder world.
  • Method #2: Ask four key questions. The authors suggest asking, “What’s working well?” “What’s not working?” “What can we do to make the things that aren’t working work?” “Is there anything else?” These questions prompt the tribe to review their current situation and work out where they want to head next. (Shortform note: These questions follow a common logic for self- or group-review: Reflect on the positives, then the negatives, then figure out what to change. For instance, James Clear uses much the same method for his annual review: He asks, “What went well? What didn’t? What am I working toward?”)

To keep your purpose alive, the authors recommend conducting regular check-ins. Tribe members often need to express grievances, rearticulate their values, and recommit to the tribe’s work. Again, use the four key questions: What’s working, what’s not, how can we do better, anything else? This prompts the tribe to reflect on and resolve any outstanding issues, and it allows them to examine and adjust their actions as needed. 

Starting From Purpose

In contrast to the authors’ assertion that values come first and a purpose derives from them, an article in the Harvard Business Review asserts that a company’s purpose comes before all else. They define “purpose” as “your company’s reason for being,” and in their model, it acts as the center of a “compass” that guides a company’s values, strategy, brand, and vision.

They note also that a purpose need not be the grandest—providing an excellent shopping experience, they say, can be just as meaningful as improving access to essential services, like health care, as long as it authentically represents the company. A purpose should differentiate the company and suggest its values: For instance, a minimalist, sustainable footwear brand might stand for “healthier feet and a healthier planet.”
Values and Purpose = Your Foundation and Direction

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  • Why culture makes all the difference when it comes to business
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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