How intelligent is your firm’s leadership team?

A Native American grandfather is talking to his grandson about how he feels about a tragedy in their village.

“I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.”

The grandson asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the fight in your heart?”

The grandfather places his hand on his heart and replies, “The one I feed.”

The power of belief systems – in this case, the wolves – is widely understood and accepted as the source of our behavior. It’s not just enough to learn external skills to increase efficiency and production. While these are certainly important, they do not, by themselves, ensure continued relevance or sustainability. The other work is choosing – and feeding – internal belief systems that maximize our leadership effectiveness.

Taken to an organizational level, we call these wolves “collective belief systems.” They are often seen in an organization’s stated core values or mission statement. They answer the question “why” – why, for example, the organization is really in business.

Often, we see collective belief systems in the stories the organization tells about itself. We might also hear it in what the organization believes it can accomplish. Or what it believes it cannot. Or whether the team is playing not to lose, rather than playing to win.

Like the wolves, the leadership effectiveness of the organization will depend on which collective belief system is fed.

Let’s take, for example, a team we’ll call “Team Awesome.” Team Awesome is awesome, except when they’re not. They have recently discovered how stuck they are. After taking a huge hit with the economic downturn in 2009, revenues are now suddenly increasing. But the team’s attitude is mired in “this will never work” and “I don’t want to be here” mentalities. They can barely keep up. Work is tedious. They bark at each other, and collectively succumb to these interactions as “this is just the way things are around here.”

You could scrape at their stuckness like the remaining edges of homemade lasagna in its pan. Not very awesome at all.

Their leader, we’ll call him Adam, sees that his leadership must first change. He realizes he was feeding a wolf in his heart that no longer served the growth of his company. He sees he needs to be a different kind of leader. Feed a different wolf. He sees his path in front of him, and begins, but he worries how to engage his team to follow him.

Adam is seeking to increase his team’s collective intelligence – that is, how quickly the team becomes aware of its belief systems and makes a choice about them.

Adam begins to have discussions with his team about the costs of how they think about things. He asks them about the impact of thinking this way on the organization – and on their customers. He asks them how this thinking serves them. He asks what they tolerate. He asks them to take responsibility for how they think.

Then he switches gears and invites them to think differently. He asks them about the future. About what’s possible. How to create experiences to support that. How to prioritize these goals and develop accountability to reach them.

Of course, he could only do this by doing it first himself. He showcases his mental agility. He reminds his team of their company’s values – and asks what they believe about them.

Team Awesome becomes even more awesome. They feel more positive about themselves as a company. They learn what they tolerated, and what they decided collectively they would not tolerate any longer.

Their team changes. Some folks leave, and those that remained are committed to Adam and their future with the company.

The most interesting part isn’t the goals and excitement Team Awesome creates within itself, but watching how they got to this point, what they left behind and what new belief system they choose to feed.

Adam increased his team’s collective intelligence by:

• Beginning with his own leadership. Looking at the wolves he feeds within himself.

• Inviting his team to experience a mental shift themselves. Creating that experience for them and leveraging the positivity into action items.

• Designing with his team how to continue to support their collective leadership effectiveness.

Why is our collective intelligence so important? It reflects our systems thinking, a critical skill in effective leadership. We want our people to stay. We want them to believe in what we are about.

We want them to breathe life into our legacies we live – and leave.

It begins with how we think.

Trinnie Houghton is a partner and executive and organizational coach with Sojourn Partners, Bedford. She can be reached at