Zebra Wisdom: Standing Out & Blending In

“If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.” — Anita Roddick

When it comes to community, herd animals can teach us a lot. Zebras are very social animals, ranging from difficult savannas to coastal hills. Zebras blend readily with antelopes, for whom they provide protection, and stand confidently in the middle of opposing forces—with friends and foes alike. With keen vision and listening, an ability to clearly send cues to the extended community, and a willingness to circle around vulnerable members to ward off attacks, zebras are stunningly collaborative and fiercely protective of loved ones. In short, they model the art of wide attention and skillful action within complex social communities.    

Our focus on cultivating Leadership Learning Communities helps our clients understand the very social nature of leadership and practice reading the environment and taking care of each other with a kind of zebra herd wisdom.

The art of the "leadership Learning community"

We have found that a community-based approach to leadership development deepens the capacity of individuals, teams, and and even different organizations to collaborate. This work emphasizes:

  • The Three Pillars of Leadership as a Map - Whatever terrain you are traversing, you need a map. We use the Three Pillars of Leadership as a competency model for self-assessment and performance reviews alike.

  • Champions as Guides - When someone takes on the role of champion, they commit to entering into leadership coaching in advance of the larger group and in a deeply meaningful way. They then act as skilled coaches and practice partners when others enter into the work.

  • Feedback Loops to Accelerate Growth - People being coached consistently rate their sense of personal improvement much more highly than others do! When participants become adept at giving skillful feedback to each other, individual performance and team progress both accelerate.

  • Short, Frequent Learning Modules to Support Mastery - Many leadership programs run for 2-3 days at a time. These events can be filled with personal insights and memorable shared experiences; however, when people return to their day jobs, often little changes. Our approach unfolds more like mastering music or sports, with an emphasis on shorter periods of learning and many more repetitions in recurring practices within the community. We've found that people learn best when material is chunked down dramatically, into 2-4 hour modules, and offered every 4-6 weeks, allowing time to experiment in between group sessions.

  • Diverse Practice Partners to Expand Perspectives - Leaders exist within formal hierarchies and it can be lonely at the top. Our community approach to learning is more horizontal, with an emphasis on exploring different perspectives across the circle. Top leaders, directors, managers, and even support staff explore difficult topics in new ways, with an explicit emphasis on different Enneagram types learning from each other and people in very different roles pairing up with one another to provide fresh insights.

  • Shared Intellectual Property to Support the Ripple Effect - Taking our cues from the software industry, we have a more "open source" philosophy, which enables clients to use our Leadership Learning Community materials, with their own branding, and with permission to evolve our content for their specific internal needs in perpetuity. Our goal is to enable this important work to ripple forward and help many more people than we could work with directly. We find ourselves inspired by our clients' innovations, and so their materials, with permission, also have a way of influencing learning communities within other organizations.

  • Alumni Who Create Welcome Support Over Time - We often introduce graduates of our Leadership Learning Community and coaching programs to one another, with some of our clients becoming friends and reporting quite moving experiences in helping one another over time. After our first cross-organizational event in winter of 2018, participants from medicine, high tech, aerospace and construction noted that, after only two days together, they felt the intimacy of having known each other for a long time. Such is the nature of a shared journey.

To get a sense of the journey, here’s the curriculum we draw from for our work.


  • The Enneagram to kick-off the larger Leadership Learning Community, with a focus on cultivating greater self awareness of one’s own type, appreciation for unique contributions as well as stress points for each of the nine types, and awareness of the very different ways that assertive, dutiful, and withdrawn types operate in organizations. Empathy for each other grows tremendously after this first module, and the Enneagram tends to grow roots far beyond the original learning community.

  • Leadership Declarations to identify a leadership quality to cultivate over the course of the year. With language that is very personally meaningful, participants often carry their declarations forward for many years, as they have chosen something that supports better relationships and greater satisfaction in life.

  • Mood Checks to build emotional literacy and sensitivity to others as a formal practice. Many of our Leadership Learning Communities have Mood Check charts in their conference rooms and distribute laminated cards, including wallet-sized cards, to make it easy to “check in” before starting meetings and even to “check in to check out” as a way to sense where people have landed at the end of important meetings. Communities quickly become literate in the more difficult moods and start to respond to each other more sensitively because people no longer check in with “good,” “fine,” and “okay” in unconscious ways. Many of our clients take the Mood Check home as the “Three Words” practice, engaging with family members at dinner, while on the road together or before bed to sense into one another’s emotional worlds.

  • Centering & Mindfulness to recover from stress and support a more grounded, open, and resourceful presence. An emphasis on breath, particularly the exhale; dimensions of length, width, and depth; grounding and support; and movement for greater aliveness and presence. Again, many of our clients teach their partners or children what they are learning and practice centering together.

  • Converting Complaints with the “MORF Process” to articulate longings in preparation for difficult conversations. Also used to create a strategic map when facing important decisions or needing to share a vision in more emotionally compelling ways. Miracles happen regularly when people pivot from the language of what is wrong or broken to the language of what they want for themselves, for others, for their relationships, and for their shared future. Leaders learn to see complaints as valuable markers for longings that are simply hidden in plain sight. We talk about the MORF Process as a practice for moving from a heart at war to a heart at peace and able to mend relationships, resolve even long-standing problems, and create possibilities where none existed before.

Social Competence

  • Listening Tours to sense moods, to study not only what people are saying but also what they are not saying, to hear issues and ideas that might never arise in formal meetings, and to notice how work actually gets done. Leaders often describe these tours as refreshing (just moving about is good for perspective!) and also profoundly important to feeling a greater sense of meaning and connection at work.

  • Improv Work with Practice Partners to learn from very different personality types how to use language to reach people, even when addressing the most vexing problems and to switch roles in a way that more closely mimics experimentation rather than performance . We always say that it is “not cheating to practice” and we recommend practicing with a variety of people, behind closed doors, before going prime time, especially when facing the most difficult conversations. Our community members practice being the “coach” who is guiding the process as well as the “client” who is seeking support.

  • Giving Feedback & Telling Stories That Move Hearts as Well as Minds is high art, whether we need to give feedback to improve performance or enroll others in sharing an important vision for the future. The more we paint vivid, emotionally-rich pictures; the more we scrub negativity out of our narratives; and the more we emphasize stories that touch into others’ highest aspirations, the more others trust us and whatever we are calling their attention towards.

  • Speaking Virtues & Appreciative Inquiry are practices that build the public identities of others in positive ways—by catching them doing things right and saying more than “good job.” By sharing others’ contributions in meaningful and public ways, we reinforce values in action and celebrate gifts that might otherwise be invisible within the community at large. Clients learn to speak their own virtues as well. We like to remind leaders that we all have to teach people how to see us—far beyond our formal titles and roles.

leadership presence

  • Leadership Autobiographies to create more intimacy with other leaders by sharing personal history, people we have counted as mentors, ways we understand the world and feel joy, moments of great learning and even failure, and themes that have defined our unique journey in life. This work is akin to creating a kind of personal TED talk, one that invites others to know us in a memorable way and opens many new conversations.

    We emphasize that “leaders go first” and that once a leader becomes emotionally vulnerable and transparent about their own mistakes as well as victories, the whole field feels safer and encourages everyone to become more real with one another. We’ve had executives do this work who have known each other and worked closely together for over 30 years—and they have been astounded by what they learned (and never knew) about their colleagues.