Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leadership, Culture & The Maori

Volume: July 2015

My family and I just returned from a fascinating trip to New Zealand. In addition to viewing breathtaking landscapes and Hobbiton (yes, the Shire from Lord of The Rings), we met and learned about a Polynesian race known as the Maori people. While the Maori (pronounced May-or-ree) of New Zealand did not experience the fate of the American Indian or Australian Aboriginals, they did engage in battles with the Europeans who settled New Zealand in the mid-1800s. Through the use of savvy negotiation skills, the Maori were able to leverage and maintain control of their most sacred lands. As a result, they have been able to enjoy the fruits of a magical land for over 150 years. In fact, we were able to visit several of their sacred places and learn about their history and culture. We were treated to a demonstration of how the Maori have adapted to modern life, while staying grounded in their beliefs and customs. The same elements that have allowed the Maori to be successful and sustain their culture for a long period of time can be employed by leaders everywhere. There are five key areas to keep in mind.  


Focus on Cultural Preservation. The Maori knew that technological innovations could easily overshadow their cultural identity. Collectively, they made the conscious decision to embrace modern conveniences that would make them relevant participants in modern society. Simultaneously, they maintained a strong focus on their cultural identity. For example, the Maori language is still taught in their school system. Also, since they continue to live on their sacred lands, they practice spiritual and social customs that are passed down from generation-to-generation.

Lesson for Leaders: Realize that changes in technology, location, telecommuting, and globalization will change your team’s work-world. Focus on maintaining the elements of your workplace culture that differentiate you from the competition and are part of your winning formula.


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Critical-Thinking. As the Maori learned about the modern world they asked many questions. By using the critical-thinking method of asking questions, listening, and assessing the information, the Maori were able to build a strategy that helped them to move forward and integrate with a broader society while still maintaining their distinctive identity.

Lesson for Leaders: While many people would refer to this segment as being strategic, it is important to realize that good strategies begin with excellent critical thinking. We do not live in a rote memorization world. We live in a fluid, rapidly changing environment. If you and your team are not thinking critically, there are an abundance of opportunities (or hazards) that you are missing.


Style. Every culture has its own style, and the Maori are no exception. They showcased apparel, actions, and behaviors that were unique and engaging. For example, on a cool evening (keep in mind, it was their winter) they wore shawls made of bird feathers, showed amazing dexterity with spears and ropes, and made facial expressions that were, well, downright strange and memorable.

Lesson for Leaders: There are six major styles of leadership. Do not be a one-dimensional leader and manage solely based on your personality. Analyze the situations with which you are faced and adjust your leadership style to mesh with the personality of your team members. Be strategic, be nimble, and in the process, be consistent with your leadership intentions.    


Preparation & Execution. The cultural presentation we were treated to was exceptional. During a nighttime, torch-lit spectacle, the Maori demonstrated how their ancient customs and war rituals have been modified into modern games and dances. In the process, the Maori people preserve costumes and ancient movements by modifying them for today’s lifestyle. Prior to each evening’s demonstration, the Maori people engage in hours of preparation and practice. They are perfectionists, and it shows.

Lesson for Leaders: Be maniacal about preparation. Hall of Fame coach Bear Bryant put it this way: "It's not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that matters." In other words, make certain your team has a “prepare to win” mindset. During the many demonstrations and talks we experienced, we did not observe one major error, slip of the tongue, or miscue from the Maori people. Amazing. Their execution was flawless. While excellent execution takes effort, the results can lead to impressed customers and an overriding air of quality. In addition, the delivery of world-class execution enhances the bottom line, increases team morale, and reduces error rates.


Focus on Others. As we walked from demonstration to demonstration, the Maori’s helped us feel like valued guests. In between presentations, we were led, not rushed or ushered. We were addressed as equals not interlopers. The Maori people attempted to educate us on their customs without appearing condescending or bitter. Their focus was on us, and that quality helped us to focus on their message.

Lesson for Leaders: Leadership is not for the selfish. In fact, Colin Powell often talks about the sacrifices that we make once we become leaders (i.e., the ability to slam our door, choose favorites, be one of the crowd, be moody, etc.). Clearly, good leaders have a knack for keeping the focus on others. The result can be a team that better embraces the culture that is nurtured by the selfless leader.


Bottom Line:

As our final evening with the Maori came to a close, their Chief shared these words: “Over the decades we have modified 80% of our culture to fit into the modern and changing world. There is 20% of our culture that we cannot and will not change. It is our identity and what sets us apart. We do not ask for the world to cater to our world, we only ask that you meet us 20% of the way.”


It is important that you, the leader, know the true culture of your organization. Help your organization to adapt to an ever changing work-world. In the process, preserve the kernels that make your organization special. Put forth practices that celebrate and sustain your corporate culture. Encourage communication that passes cultural norms from seasoned team member to newer team member. This is your main job. Leaders are the keepers of the culture. Leaders impact culture®!

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