Transforming a Leadership Culture In Al-Akhawayn students
Updated: Feb 1
Let us picture a scene during primitive times, about 65 million years ago. Picture the first human tribes at that time. After a long day of tracking, hunting and finally succeeding in killing a deer, the chief of the group brings the bounty to the tribe. Upon the hunters’ return, the tribe rushed towards them, cheering and getting ready for a feast. However, there was one problem. Everybody was certainly starving and impatient to eat. It was clear that the people in the tribe would not be eating at the same time; disorder and confusion would ensue. The question remained then, who would eat first? This is when leaders come into play.
From an anthropological point of view, New York Times bestseller author, Simon Sinek (2014) explained in his book “Leaders Eat Last”, that leaders were important for the fair distribution of food and for offering protection to their people. The chief of the tribe would establish rules, have traditions and symbols which would ensure the stability of the tribe- and hence decide who would eat first. Everyone else would comply with that agreement.
Let us now fast-forward to contemporary times. Leaders are those at the top of companies, organisations or a country. However, leaders are also mothers who make sure that their family members are safe and well-fed. Leaders are also activists like 16-year old Swedish, Greta Thunberg. She recently urged several world leaders to implement urgent actions towards climate change at the Climate Summit in New York in September 2019 (Guardian, 2019).
What do they all have in common?
They gather people together for a common purpose. Those leaders make sure that their people are valued, feel safe and become better versions of themselves. As Simon Sinek (2014) said, “Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us” (p. 78). However, often in business organizations, leadership traditionally involved the excessive use of power because of one’s position at the organization. It was more of an authoritative style of leadership which was not always efficient, and which drove researchers to look back at history for answers. This is how servant leadership and transformational leadership became popular concepts.
Coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, the servant leader is firstly concerned with the needs of others. He has the conscious need to serve, to share power and to assist people in their personal and professional development (Greenleaf, 2016). Transformational leadership involves a leader who encourages, inspires and motivates employees towards innovation. This will then contribute to the growth and success of a company. Writer, Sara White (2018) explains that this is accomplished by setting an example at the top management level through a strong sense of culture amongst other factors at the workplace.
A culture is a group of people demonstrating similar beliefs, values, attitudes and practices (Warrick, 2015). This is what we strive to inculcate to students at the Leadership Development Institute (LDI) at Al-Akhawayn University. We encourage teammates to create a sense of trust and belonging through methods that are unique to their team. For their one-year program at the LDI, teammates must work together on designing a project from scratch while implementing sustainable practices. At the same time, they learn leadership skills and other soft skills that are continuously honed by practice. They quickly learn that they need to be in synergy for effective results to occur in a year. One way of building culture could be as simple as having a routine of having lunch every Friday. My favourite example is having a team member bringing food for the rest of the team if ever they are late or don't show up for a weekly meeting. This is a way to “repair the harm” that they have caused in their team.
At the end of the semester, participating students at the LDI are expected to go through the four phases of psychologist, Bruce Tuckman's (1977) group development. Acquiring leadership skills greatly depends on working together in a conducive environment that will be created by team members themselves. This is important since it builds trust and a safe environment for the team to thrive.
For instance, at Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retail company, CEO Tony Hsieh stated that if the culture is right, most of the other things such as customer service, long-term planning, motivated employees and satisfied clients will naturally occur on their own. Indeed, another CEO, Wells Fargo said that if leadership decisions are not carefully taken into consideration regarding cultural implications, this can destroy the targeted culture (Warrick, 2017).
It can be challenging to deal with unenthusiastic teammates to work on a project. It is even more tedious for most students to have the energy to develop a culture within a short time for a class project. However, the key is to start thinking about the common purpose of the team from the beginning. It is about "us" versus "I". If one teammate can instill this altruistic mindset in everyone's mind, this will drive motivation for the team. This also acts as a catalyst to be more creative and hence be inspired to achieve more. Therefore, the next time that you find yourself with team members that you did not choose, think about what can bond you as a team together and be the one to challenge the purpose of the team. You will be surprised by the transformation of the people around you. This will also be the start of your servant and transformational leadership journey. Good luck!
Gabriella ML M
Human Development Manager
Leadership Development Institute
Greenleaf, R. K. (2016). What is Servant Leadership? Retrieved from Center for Servant Leadership: https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. In S. Sinek, Leaders Eat Last (pp. 77-78). Penguin.
The Guardian. (2019, October 1). Greta Thunberg condemns world leaders in emotional speech at UN. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-speech-un-2019-address
Tuckman B.W, J. a. (1977). Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited. Sage, 2, 419-427. Retrieved from https://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~daeme101/Stages%20of%20Small-Group%20Development%20Revisted.pdf
Warrick. (2015). Understanding, building, and changing. In W. a. Mueller, Lessons in changing cultures: Learning from real world cases (pp. 1-16). Oxford, UK: RossiSmith Academic Publishing.
Warrick, D. (2017). What leaders need to know about. Elsevier. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2017.01.011
White, S. K. (2018, February 21). What is transformational leadership? A model for motivating innovation. Retrieved from CIO: https://www.cio.com/article/3257184/what-is-transformational-leadership-a-model-for-motivating-innovation.html
 Tuckman's group development is a model of team development through four main stages; forming, storming, norming, and performing. In the forming stage, team members are polite and positive and team member’s roles are not clear as they start working together. The storming phase usually consists of the team failing because of conflicts between the team members. The norming stage involves team members resolving their differences, appreciating and respecting each other. The final stage is when there is a good structure in the team, and everyone starts performing well towards the achievement of the team’s goal (Tuckman et al., 1977).