Pixie Dust Not Required

food for thought

When I was in college I took a number of leadership studies classes at the University of Northern Iowa, nearly all of which started with a discussion of the same question.

Are leaders born or made?

This was the late 90’s, and there was still a prevailing notion that many of history’s greatest leaders resulted from a mysterious providence, that is, they possessed innate qualities that made them successful.  They are often described as visionaries that could sway the masses with their charisma, personality, or sheer force of will.

Today, most scholars agree that in order to influence behavior, leaders must have the ability to communicate and organize effectively.  These are widely regarded as skills to be acquired, though they may come more naturally to some than others.  

While once shrouded in mystery, leadership is largely thought of as a skill that can be learned.  Today most would agree with Vince Lombardi who famously said, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”

And Great Culture?

Somewhat surprisingly, many still view culture as a byproduct of happenstance.  There is something almost mystical about groups with great culture.  We are in awe of them because they are scarce and nearly impossible to replicate.  We are particularly enamored when they succeed where others have failed.  

There is a stubborn belief that great culture occurs when the right people end up in the right seats at the right time.  Need to improve your team’s chemistry?  Might as well sprinkle some pixie dust into the mix and hope for the best.  For as we know, if any of these variables are wrong - the wrong people, the wrong seats, the wrong time - our culture is destined to fail. 

The problem with this explanation is that it is shrouded in mystery.  Few can explain how the right people ended up there when they did, and supply chain issues have left pixie dust in short supply.  Whatever are we to do?

“Culture is not a gift you receive, it’s a skill you earn.” - Daniel Coyle, The Culture Playbook

As Daniel Coyle has discovered, great cultures have a common DNA.  Whether in business, education, sports, or medicine, successful cultures result from highly connected groups that operate with warm, honest candor, and are driven by purpose.  None of these are easy, but all can be learned.

Two of the best books of 2022 teach us how to develop the skills necessary to build a great culture.  As we discussed in our recent interview with Coyle, his most recent work, The Culture Playbook, offers 60+ strategies and activities to develop connection, vulnerability, and purpose.  While not every suggestion will be right for your team, Coyle has studied some of the highest achieving cultures in the world and curated some of their best practices in his newest book.  His thesis is clear - great culture is accessible to anyone willing to engage.

For those looking for a more sequential approach, JP Nerbun’s soon-to-be-released book The Culture System provides the most detailed guide to building culture on the market.  Through his extensive work with coaches at all levels, JP makes it clear that anyone can develop a highly effective culture if you’re willing to do the work.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “We’ll have better chemistry next year when these players / parents / coaches / administrators are gone…” then it’s time to update your thinking.  Great culture is not a matter of waiting for the right people to find your team at the right time.  It’s a matter of you learning the right skills to facilitate connections, to traffic in transparency, and to find and communicate your purpose.  No pixie dust required.

Food for thought.

-Nate Sanderson

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