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Traditions, Totems, and Taboos

In the earliest civilizations there were groups and organizations and leaders. The leaders were often religious ones who developed rituals or “traditions,” often to appease or interpret their gods. And there were always “totems” or instruments that exempliied the myriad events and happenings that could not be understood except as relections of the behaviour of things they could understand. For example, the indigenous people of North America's West Coast created and carved hierarchies of understanding and erected them for all to see and thereby understand.

In the earliest civilizations there were also taboos, which were deined as forbidden actions. People could protect themselves by not performing those acts. Taboos included things that should not be eaten or touched or practised because of the harm, often mortal harm, that would result.

So it was in the past, and so it is today.

Traditions are actions that help bind people together. Totems are symbols, real and perceived, that represent common understanding among people in an organization. Taboos are behaviours and actions that are discouraged and often denied to the people in an organization.

Some of the strongest cultures have been deined by their religion. In religious organizations, traditions, totems, and taboos are clearly deined and understood. They often take the form of rules, procedures, dogma, and sanctions. But those same mores also exist in more secular organizations where they help deine and strengthen the culture.

There are many speciic examples of traditions, totems, and taboos that characterize a given organization. Many are the same, but many others are unique to a single organization. Some organizational traditions, totems, and taboos are so strong that they are adopted by employees even when they leave their workplace and go home.

It was always well known that you could identify a DuPont employee in the neighbourhood on a Saturday morning in the summer. They were the ones wearing steel-capped boots to cut the lawn. Our safety culture did not stop at the gate of the ofice or at the manufacturing plant. Traditions, totems, and taboos are visible everywhere in organizations. They include ritual celebrations of team achievements; the elevation of superior role model leaders to hero status in company historical records; and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the prosecution of leaders who have demonstrated breaches of truth, integrity, ethics – a societal taboo for all to witness (think Enron and WorldCom). In many business organizations there are less visible but still important rituals, totems, and taboos, such as a Friday night beer with your team, employee of the month awards, and annual strategic planning retreats.

All of these elements of an organization, though common and often somewhat trivial, when taken as a whole and repeated over months and years, begin to deine a culture.

Some rituals are much more prominent than others. An example is Greenpeace's ritual of sending out representatives in conspicuous ways to their perceived adversaries to generate audiences for their point of view. Greenpeace will send small boats to circle whaling vessels and oil tankers, and to send out activists to climb water towers to raise Greenpeace lags and signs. Tactics like these deine a culture.

Core Values

I have discussed the importance of values when deining both individuals and organizations. I have deined values as the sum of beliefs, philosophy, and principles – those things that are important both to us as individuals and to the organizations to which we belong. They are the things we hold to be true and that do much to guide our actions. The importance, to aspiring leaders, of well-deined values cannot be underestimated.

Core values help deine the organization's culture. An organization with a strong culture will have a clear and concise set of core values that everyone in the organization aligns with. I said before when deining values that it is possible for a role model leader to have certain values that are not fully aligned with those established by the organization. But that leader's core values must not differ. It is inconceivable that a role model leader could have core values that differ from those of the other people in the organization.

Core values are those beliefs and principles that rise above other beliefs and principles that might be held; they are values that verge on the mystical, the cult-like.

Examples are everywhere. McDonald's does not just believe in high quality; they insist on it, and they have designed elaborate systems and processes based on that core value. Just ask any employee. It is perhaps simplistic to say that Japan has built its culture around reproducing quality
everywhere in its products and in its people's actions; perhaps this is going too far, but it is the behaviour and attribute that most would recognize as Japanese.

The DuPont Company has a set of core values. The best illustration of a DuPont core value raised to the highest level – where it deines the organizational culture – relates to safety. Adherence to the culture of safety and to safe behaviour has deined the DuPont Company since its founder decided to work alongside the people in his original explosives factory. As the senior role model leader, he had decided to eliminate deaths from the unplanned detonation of black powder in his factory. He designed systems and procedures to achieve that end; then he decided that the best way to inluence people to change their way of doing things in the factory was to stand beside them and work with them. This transformed the process for manufacturing explosives. The culture of safety continued as the DuPont Company moved from a single hazardous product line to others. The deining of the company's safety culture went hand in hand with the development of the business. Employees are encouraged to live this safety culture off the job as well.

The commitment to safety is also relected in the products developed in the DuPont laboratories, such as Kevlar® aramid ibre. Kevlar is woven into fabric used to make protective apparel that has saved the lives of thousands of people around the world.2

I was associated with DuPont by observing and living its culture for more than thirty years. From that experience I learned that a strong set of core values helps develop a strong culture and a high-performance company.

Over time, strong values grow into core values. Essential to that process is the reinforcement and support provided by a succession of strong leaders. There are symbiotic relations among strong leadership, a strong culture, core values, and high performance.

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