Previously, I have written about how our inspiring friends at Populist are proving, one day, one choice and one person at a time, that we CAN transform business from a single-use tool delivering economic profit into a multi-use device to help us solve difficult human problems and make the world a better place. Theirs is a remarkable story of bringing aspiration to life through the choices (big and small) that became a strategy. All that positive momentum is the result of one thing: embodiment – each person doing their part to make it so. Leadership by embodiment – or what I have termed transformative embodiment – is the subject of this week’s post, and Populist provides us a quick study.
I don’t usually do this, but I am going to begin by posing a question.
If people who represent an organization are going to realize the purpose or collective intention of the organization, how must they act? The answer, as you will have already realized, is obvious – “Well, they must believe in the purpose strongly enough to act on it in their day to day activities and decisions, large and small!” And there you have it, the essential idea of embodiment in a nutshell.
Of course, the follow up (nutshell-decimating) inquiry to that is: “… and how exactly does one go about creating a culture where people believe in the purpose strongly enough to act on it?” And, there we are, squarely in the “soft” and ever-shifting territory of culture. I’ll attempt to answer both of those questions in the next few paragraphs.
The culture of any organization is shaped most profoundly by those in its midst who are its heroes, its leaders, and whose actions are significant for the principles they embody. Do they, through their actions, lift the standards of behavior to new heights and lead others toward a better way? Embodiment suggests “making an ideal real and concrete” or “personifying a concept”. The exemplary leaders who speak and show what the purpose means with excellence and creativity also seek out passion for the purpose in others. They mentor, nurture and inspire – to bring to life in others the same irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for the purpose that has captivated them. A collective identity is built as it is embodied, and the principles, hopes and ideals of a group coalesce as people continually act on them.
This task of embodiment, of course, is the most difficult and pressing charge for every organization. It’s where “the rubber meets the road” so to speak – where the real work of the organization is delivered and where trust is forged (or broken). It’s true what they told us in grade school, then: actions speak louder than words. And when those actions signal something, they signal it to both customers and to fellow employees.
That brings me to a crucial point: because embodiment is about lived ideals, it is always occurring. How is it shaping your organization?In other words, “What ideals are being made real?” and “Are they the ones the organization aspires to?”
As it occurs, embodiment can either create a positive cycle (reinforcing the stated aims and ideals of the organization) or a negative one (deconstructing the stated aims and ideals of the organization). The use of “either/or” is intentional: for the cycle does not pause, and static passivity is not available. When ideals other than ones a purpose implies are brought to life, the cycle degrades the character and quality of the organization. When the ideals of a purpose are embodied with excellence and creativity that only people can apply, the cycle delivers organizational strength and fulfillment of that purpose. And as – one by one – people begin to form a culture that includes particular expressions of embodiment, the purposeful enterprise can become real in ways hardly thought possible. This is most often the case when that embodiment gives evidence and personification to a clear expression of purpose and strategy. The choices of strategy and the aspirations of the culture remain inanimate and sterile notions unless they come to life in the actions of a few that then become the actions of many as embodiment is first witnessed and then mimicked.
That’s the case for Populist. The values and core ideas for an organization that Grant Tudor shaped with a few trusted friends began to cascade outward as the group brought them to life both through the culture they were building and in the work – the strategy – they enacted. Populist has built a collective identity through relentless embodiment of a set of ideals.
I asked some people close to the organization a few questions about how exactly it seems that everyone associated with the organization came to live out this similar set of ideals. The responses were clear, “It all stems from Grant. He is the North Star and the direction-setter, the inspiration. He is the most inclusive leader I’ve had the pleasure of working with – he brings everyone along for the journey, values all inputs, and he is incredibly talented at listening to a range of perspectives and netting out with a synthesis that contains the best of all worlds.”
But Grant would be quick to point out that there is no Populist without a whole raft of others who became captivated and drawn in enough to take up the banner as well. He’s right, of course, but bringing a set of ideals to life always feels more possible after you’ve encountered a great idea, and an exemplar who flashes signs of what those ideals look like in real life.
And how, you wonder, is the embodiment cycle unfolding now that others have joined the frame? Today, a self-portrait of Populist’s collective identity looks something like this: broad-based/democratic leadership, a learning attitude, a reflective nature, humility, belief, passion, perseverance, resourcefulness, curiosity, desire to serve, and a craving for the chance to take a risk and to put something good out there. This set of characteristics should seem familiar, because they are effectively a scaled replica of the way the first passionate Populist storyteller envisioned his seductive, transformational idea to be carried out, and then went ahead doing it.
Another place to look for embodiment is both the kind and delivery of the work itself. The growing cadre of Populisters has taken on and successfully delivered work for a diverse set of organizations and projects. Populist helped the Center for Prevention of Genocide (an initiative of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) to design and launch a first-of-its kind product: a strategic communications guide to prevent mass atrocities. Populist conceived, designed and iterated a set of tools to make the material accessible for practitioners on the front-lines of peace keeping efforts around the world. Another recent job, for Thread – which “commits an extended family of support” for the bottom-performing 25% of students in Baltimore’s schools – saw Populist helping to construct a strong brand around the idea of “weaving a new social fabric” and sharpen the organization’s purpose, expressions and shared behaviors.
The best indicator for identifying when the embodiment cycle is going well is fairly simple: increasing alignment between an organization’s brand and culture (no matter how much in their infancy) in service to a purpose. The acid test is obvious: can you find living, breathing representatives of the purpose in action? People will always represent some purpose; is it the one declared or is the organization a fraud?
The kind of embodiment that has carried Populist to success in such short order might be described as transformative embodiment, defined with a three-letter acronym: PTI – personal, translatable, and inspirational. For embodiment to be transformative, it must be personal, we could say, ‘incarnate’, as an individual chooses to uniquely tailor their expression of the ideal in a way that suits and captures his or her character and personality. Transformative embodiment must be translatable in that it is infectious and easy for others to pick up and adapt. And finally, for obvious reasons, it simply must be inspirational.
We all know transformative embodiment when we see it. It was on display on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks politely refused a racist decree, and again in Tiananmen Square, or in the quiet actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to harbor Jews in Nazi Germany. But it’s not just reserved for historic moments and epic injustice. Far from it. Transformative embodiment is also what you’re witnessing when you see the scientist who speaks out on climate change ride his bicycle to work each day, or when you hear about the saleswoman who has made a successful career building long term relationships getting up early to help a former client craft an urgently needed sales pitch.
More often than not, it’s the little moments that make culture. Inevitably, we are each contributing to the organizations in which we serve, the only question is: in what way? We are either building them up to live out their declared purpose or we are undermining it. That choice is ours.
The ongoing challenge, of course, is to help transformative embodiment of an organization’s purpose to become successional – so that it is not extinguished when the Grant Tudors of the world move on to other things. Doing that will require courage and humility, and a fair helping of other virtues we’ll talk more about in the coming chapters.