I thought I knew everything I needed to know about being a leader. I have been an art director, a design lead and a manager, have led teams of between 3 and 15 people from all sorts of backgrounds, and developed a number of techniques and approaches that were pretty successful for me.

Many managers become leaders by being good at something, let’s say building a widget, and by patiently persisting in their competence, eventually get promoted to manager. This was my path as well. I was a successful newspaper artist and designer, and was eventually rewarded with a management position as an art director. I’ve noticed though, that so many managers don’t ever get to have the epiphany that I did: Once promoted, the job is no longer about widgets, it’s about leading the people who make the widgets. This is a huge leap for many, evidently.

I had this epiphany within a year or so of beginning to manage cranky creative people. I’m fortunate that I found a certain detachment, that I was able to observe my own behavior without much ego, see what was effective and what wasn’t, and to adjust accordingly. I knew I wasn’t perfect, and was always ready to learn. I was also “blessed” with an extremely difficult boss, and learned a lot about what not to do. I came to understand that it was important to actually care about the people who were sweating out 8 hours a day in creative labor. Getting the most out of creative people rather requires that they care about you as well, and are willing to bring their A game. I did well with this knowledge, and in time earned the affection of my staff and many colleagues who did business with the Art Department.

In 2000, I moved online and started over, designing Web sites. In this context, although I did get to manage students and temporary hires, leadership was mostly about invention, strategy and execution for me. Doing what needed doing, whether asked or not. As I got more and more involved in providing technical support for Web sites and training for site operators, customers became a bigger part of the leadership equation for me. Caring about people was still crucial, but from a different direction. Eventually, I became the manager of a small team providing Web support and training.

Success in my first years online created a bit of a challenge in the new role, as more and more people wanted a piece of the Web pie. Partly this was because of growing awareness of the importance of the most essential communications medium of our time, but also because our team delivered an excellent product at no cost to the customer clients at the school. To answer the challenge, I began looking around at how other support organizations were managing their own growth challenges.

Mimi Pham and Tony Hsieh

Mimi Pham and Tony Hsieh let me take their 3D picture at Stanford after Tony's talk on Delivering Happines

I happened to find a talk by Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com that he gave at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I have since heard Tony speak in person. His talk about building a culture of customer service was inspiring and influential. I immediately recognized the truth of his thesis: That culture is the essential element of work, that how customers feel about their customer experience is the most important factor, and that it takes happy employees to make customers truly happy.

Tony’s excellent book, Delivering Happiness, pointed me to another book called Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. The result of more than ten years of scientific social research involving over 24,000 people, the authors discovered and documented 5 evolutionary stages of behavior in “tribes,” groups of 20-150 people, the effective maximum for functional social groups. They found that organizations evolve through 5 known stages, each building on the one before, and reflected in the language of their tribes:

  • Stage 1: Life sucks
  • Stage 2: MY life sucks
  • Stage 3: I’m great
    (and you’re not)
  • Stage 4: We’re great
  • Stage 5: Life is great

I quickly recognized that, like half of all organizations, my tribe was firmly rooted in Stage 3. And I thought I was Stage 4, if not 5. Even so, I thought it would be good for me to take training in Tribal Leadership, so I signed up for Tribal Leadership Intensive 1 and 2, a weekly tele-course over 12 weeks.

Having completed this training, I now know that, although I’m now firmly on the path to being a stable Stage 4 leader, I’m still a recovering Stage 3. I have good instincts for connecting people, now have a tool kit for developing successful strategies and relationships, and I understand that as long as it’s all about “me” and not about “we,” it’s Stage 3.

I know that noticing is more than half the battle. I can see my path more clearly now, and have begun my personal transformation. I am on the leadership road, and I expect the journey to take a lifetime.


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