As the world becomes increasingly complex, and people have to handle more and more stress and change, our team at TomorrowToday has been drawn back time and again to a remarkable framework for the development of high-performing people and healthy communities. It has its roots in developmental education and youth development, an area in which two of our founding partners spent many years. It’s called ‘The Circle of Courage’, and is an ancient formula that can be applied to the most modern of organisations.

Developed initially by Dr Martin Brokenleg, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and Professor of Native American Studies and Theology, it was captured in the book, “Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future” (co-authored with Dr Brokenleg by Larry Brendtro and Steve van Bockern – available here on Kindle) and has since been developed through their non-profit organisation, Reclaiming Youth International (RYI). You can see a video introduction of his teachings here.

The Circle of Courage® is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy everyone needs a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. These four focus areas become pillars on which organisational DNA can be built, and is a powerful framework for leadership focus. The model integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practical wisdom of professional pioneers with troubled youth, the findings of youth development research, and modern management theories (including especially the work of Peter Senge and Gary Hamel). It can be applied to any organisation or team, regardless of the age of the people involved.

In organisational development and leadership theory, the four aspects of the Circle of Courage are reimagined for team dynamics and the world of work, but the underlying principles still apply. In order to become part of the adult tribe, Sioux children had to demonstrate competence in each of these four areas, and the community was required to focus on these four areas as a way of maintaining its overall health. Today, if we are going to build resilient, healthy and thriving teams, as leaders we need to create an environment where each of these four areas can be developed and experienced by every person in the team or organisation.

Four Universal Needs

Circle of CourageEvery human being has four core needs: To know that they are significant, capable, powerful on the inside, and a genuinely good human being. These four needs are met by four organisational attributes:

  • Belonging – knowing that you belong lets you know how important you are, and is fostered by opportunities to establish trusting connections and to feel attached. Growing not just a sense of “co-working” (teamwork), but focusing instead on the experience of belonging (Seth Godin famously calls this “belonging to a tribe”) is a key characteristic of almost all of the companies rated “best companies to work for” in various global surveys.
  • Mastery – contributing something that you are good at is how you experience what you know and what you’re capable of, and is fostered by opportunities to solve problems and meet goals. This model is based on the assumption that in a healthy environment, every individual is motivated to give their best, and has a desire to get better and contribute more. A key component of Native culture was that if each person was striving to be the best that they could be, this is achieved by striving against oneself, not by being superior to one’s opponent. And therefore the attainment of success became the possession of the many, and not merely the success of the individual, or a privileged few.
  • Independence – and the sense of being responsible for yourself is how you know that you are strong on the inside, and is fostered by opportunities to build self control and responsibility. The goal is to earn independence by building trust. In the modern business world, this aspect of the model includes managing complexity, choosing between apparently conflicting needs, taking responsibility and initiative, and becoming inter-dependent with others. In fact, “Interdependence” might be a better descriptor for this aspect of the model.
  • Generosity – and a desire to see others succeed is how you determine your goodness as a human being, and is fostered by opportunities to show respect and concern. This includes assisting others, mentoring, helping others to grow and providing support for others. It is not merely about altruism and philanthropy.

Dr Brokenleg talks of these as “four kinds of experiences that make a strong human being”. It’s not good enough to talk about these issues – we have to help people to experience them. And this becomes the task of the leader in a team or organisation.

Over the years, the Circle of Courage has been shown to strongly connect with established psychological developmental models. For example, Stanley Coopersmith’s four foundations of self-esteem: significance, competence, power, and virtue (see his seminal book, Antecedents of self-esteem, 1967). Each of Coopersmith’s markers for self-esteem can be paired with the values of the Circle of Courage.

  • First, significance is assured by belonging, where children are accepted by caring adults and surrounded by positive peer interactions. In this environment, all members of a community are valued.
  • Competence is gained by opportunities to achieve mastery in personal growth. However, the desire to achieve is never to better others, but to grow in knowledge and better one’s self. Those with talents become models and mentors to support the learning of others.
  • Power is gained in becoming independent. People who are given opportunities to learn self-control, participate in decision-making, and develop power to resist negative peer influence gain independence.
  • Virtue is reflected in generosity. People should be encouraged to help others and befriend those in need, which in turn fosters empathy, prosocial values, and proof of one’s worth.

The task of the leader, then, is to foster an environment in which each of these four aspects of organisational DNA can flourish. What, precisely, this looks like will differ from context to context, and depend on many different variables. There are no “quick fix” solutions. But the Circle of Courage model provides a superb framework in which a leadershp team can identify strengths and weaknesses, and more effectively select and focus interventions to build healthy teams and support high-performing individuals. A good leader will ask – for each of the four areas of the Circle of Courage – “what can I (we) do to increase the sense of belonging/mastery/independence/generosity in our team/organisation?”

The answers will range from organisational design changes to adjustments to what is measured and rewarded, from new training programmes to team exercises, and from small management actions to large, organisational change interventions. It’s the small and big, the individual and organisational, the short term and the strategic, that all add up together to build healthy organisations and support high-performing individuals.

If you would like more information on how to apply the Circle of Courage to your organisation or team, please contact TomorrowToday with your request.

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