How often do we ask this question? Not enough, perhaps.
Having spent many years participating in Native American tipi ceremonies across the Southwest and beyond, there is a time in these all-night traditions in the morning hours, as the formalities wind down, in which the floor is opened up to those who would like to express themselves. In this time, as I have been taught, it is best not to say too much unless we feel we have something truly important to say.
This is when I have had the opportunity to listen to countless traditional Navajo people take the floor and begin by introducing themselves according to their lineage, carefully laying out their four clan affiliations stemming from each of their grandparents, and associating themselves with the clan of their maternal grandmother, as their culture is matriarchal.
I always found great beauty and lyricism in this method of introduction, but more importantly, over time I found a deeper meaning in it beyond the mere lyrical nature of it.
In our modern society we tend to introduce ourselves according to our work: I’m a doctor, I’m an accountant, I’m a chef, I’m a mechanic, I’m a carpenter, and so on. Thus identifying ourselves by WHAT we do. Indigenous people, on the other hand, introduce themselves by their lineage, by where they come from, and in doing so, implying WHO they are.
There are people I’ve sat in ceremony with for years before finding out what kind of work they do, and yet in that time I learned very deeply about their character, their hopes and dreams, and what is truly important to them.
Each of us has a vocation, and some of us bounce from one line of work to another. Underlying the work we do, though, is something much more important than merely WHAT we do. WHO I am, is much more subtle, and yet much more important than the work I do.
This existential notion of self-identity, and our lack of focus on it in our modern society, has a great deal to do with the level of confusion that exists in the world today.
Business and organizational culture is precisely about the identity of an organization. Companies with dysfunctional cultures are the way they are precisely because they have not taken the time and effort to closely consider WHO they are. Companies with strong cultures are easily defined in terms of the values they hold in common, the behaviors that are rewarded, and the tone and tenor of the organization. And yet if we don’t know WHO we are personally, how can we define the WHO and WHY of a company?
The same can be said for large institutions and even governments. This recent presidential election in the U.S. illustrates the divided nature of our country. We adhere to a document called the Constitution, arguing endlessly about its meaning, while it was written nearly 229 years ago, roughly nine generations past.
If we were to take a learning from the Navajo people, indigenous culture in general, and the prompt offered by brand guru Simon Sinek, we would come together as a country to re-write the constitution, asking ourselves, What kind of a country are we, really? Why do we exist? What is our purpose?
And yet, we cannot effectively do this, as a company, an organization, or even a government, until we, as individuals, first explore the question, “Who am I, really?”