Indigenous Principles

It is through the daily practice of these principles that we have found enhanced purpose, connection, and innovation. Culture shift flows from these principles and the values contained within them. Below are thirteen principles, certainly not all the principles that comprise indigenous society, but rather those we have found to have the most direct impact on the art of doing business.

Glenn Geffcken, partner of Balanced Is has codified these principles into a system for living and working that will bring about lasting positive change. Read Glenn’s book, Shift: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change to discover more.

Connection To Earth

Icon Connection To Earth
All that we have comes from our natural environment; from Mother Earth. In the Indigenous mindset Mother Earth is not a resource she is a living deity who provides for our well-being. She is called “Mother” as she is the grand life giver. The natural environment is not something to be exploited or even to be measured and extracted from according to production quotas and human need, rather to enter into a relationship with her in which there is a continual give and take; the system of life we know of as the circle of life.
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Everything Is Alive

Icon Everything Is Alive
Expanding on the principle of connection to Earth, Indigenous people also see that everything is alive including the rocks, mountains, rivers, thunderclouds, and even the Sun and Moon. They make no distinction between biological forms of life and those we see as inanimate. To the Indigenous, everything is life and with this understanding the way in which we move through our lives and working endeavors will take on new meaning.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“I have heard it said over and over how nature is a storehouse of information far greater than any library or learning institution. So it is through developing a deep connection with Earth and seeing the aliveness of all things that we can catapult our learning to a whole new level. This is the foundation of all Indigenous culture and understanding. In order for one to garner the wisdom of this culture, it is necessary to start here, with more than a mere appreciation for nature—with a visceral bond and connection to all life and all of its systems.”

The Elders

Icon The Elders
In our modern world of super fast computers, four-month-old software already out of date, the Internet, globalism and hyper competition, it can be challenging to perceive the value of the wisdoms held by our elders. To be an elder in the Indigenous sense is not so much about age, rather how a person has lived their life, the compassion of their heart, their humility, and their willingness to share their knowledge, teachings and stories. In Indigenous culture they are the link from the past to the present, the connecting cultural link, and the example we strive for.

In our working world there is a great deal to be gained from maintaining a strong connection to the elders, yet it requires us to shed our impatience with their different ways and slowness to grasp technology, and to perceive the incredible value they have to give us. They can teach us about patience, communication, negotiation, strategy and so much more. They can also demonstrate for us the power of experience.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“Elders do not harbor resentments. They do not envy others or covet their possessions. They do not speak often, yet when they do, their words carry an uncommon power to direct attention, cut through confusion, and strike to the heart of things that block forward movement. They do not argue. They listen mostly and speak only when they have something of value to share, and most importantly, they are humble in ways that are of great significance. The Navajo people have a most beautiful way of referring to those who have achieved a true state of elder-hood; they refer to them as those who “walk in beauty.””

The Four Directions

Icon The Four Directions
The principle of the Four Directions is about seeing oneself as a part of a system, that from each of the directions comes different elements, colors, animals, ways of being, and spirits. The four directions is illustrated with the medicine wheel showing us in the center, but not the kind of center that says that everything revolves around us, rather that we are surrounded by a dynamic system that works together to create and sustain life. We are no higher or lower, no better or worse, and we have neither dominion over nor are we in subservience under. We are a part of. So too, with businesses and organizations as they work best when all their parts function as one living dynamic, each part equally respected and valued.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“Indigenous people do not acknowledge the four directions because of custom or ritual. They acknowledge the powers of an integral system of life that works best when they work in concert with the whole. They see themselves as a component of a greater whole, and when they appeal to the four directions, they are in balance and they are centered. If, for example, when holding ceremony they only called to three of the four directions, they would be cheating themselves out of all that their lives could be. In this example, they would also be disrespecting that one direction that was left out, and their lives would be out of balance.

“In addition to being a principle, the concept of the four directions is also a mindset and a practice. It is a way of relating to the world, a way of honoring all the diversity that exists, and a way of seeing oneself as a piece in a greater dynamic system of interdependent components consisting of people, places, things, animals, elements and Spirit or higher power. It is a deeper way of relating to life, as it takes the focus off oneself and expands it outward in an infinite arch of understanding.”


Icon Patience
With the pace of business today it’s easy to forget the importance and value of patience. The continuous drive towards more profits, more growth, how many followers on Facebook, how many employees, how much funding received, how much press, and so on, means that we can easily lose site of what is truly important. Building great things requires time, consistent effort, passion, purpose, dedication, and so much more. Most importantly, it requires the patience to enjoy the process today, the building and creating, the designing and cultivating, and the eye to catch the nuanced signals telling us that we’re on the right track.

“You have to have a lot of patience to hear those old people talk, because when they talk, they talk about motivation, the feeling, the unsound that is around the universe. They explain everything to one understanding. They bring it all together, and when they finish, just one word comes out. Just one word. They might talk all day, and just one word comes out.” – Wallace Black Elk, Lakota


Icon Intentionality
Intentionality is one of the least written about principles of doing business and yet, is so highly important for building amazing organizations. It’s practiced by the greatest of our leaders, yet not so clearly defined and brought out as it is in Indigenous society. Ceremony representing the consistent metaphor throughout the world of Indigenous people shows us how approaching things intentionally brings about amazing results.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“All the small rituals and formalities, each with their own meanings, collectively represent a process of engagement in physical and mystical acts with clear and highly focused intention. If we engage in the physical acts for the sake of the rituals themselves, then it becomes more about show or simple delight, and the ceremonies become watered down. Indigenous elders, those that reach the state of “walking in beauty” have arrived at a place of wisdom, compassion, and dignity through many years of intentional acts and intentional living.”

Roles of Men and Women

Icon The Roles of Men & Women
For too long the modern business world has denied women a level playing field, and for too long men have and continue to fear the unique qualities and strengths that women bring. So too, men have denied themselves the understandings of what it means to be an authentic man. Women striving to compete on terms set by men. Men working so hard to control the rules of the game have cut themselves short, both of honoring their own strengths and of allowing women to shine in theirs.

In Indigenous Society, women are held up as sacred life givers, the more spiritual gender, and the ones responsible for maintaining compassion and balance in the community. Therein lies a great misunderstanding of Indigenous culture by the Western mindset, that viewing women as nurturing compassionate life givers is diminutive to the men who hunt, go to war, and do the hard physical labor. It is considered of greater strength and courage to maintain compassion in the face of adversity than to go to battle, and of much higher importance to show one’s emotions than to pretend detachment.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“There is beauty, intense beauty derived from watching men and women perform in their strengths with intention and dignity. In my first experiences with Indigenous culture watching grand entry at the powwows, as the dancers entered the arena in a long procession grouped by gender and style of regalia, I saw the northern traditional men with their huge bustles of eagle feathers dancing the warrior’s dance, and the women’s traditional dancers in their long buckskin dresses dancing in a most stately and dignified manner. I was in awe—men and women honoring who they are and becoming art in movement.”

Seventh Generation Unborn

Icon 7th Generation Unborn
In modern society we tend to live for the second generation, our children. In some societies like certain European and Asian cultures they tend to live for the third generation, their grandchildren. In Indigenous Society they strive to live for the seventh generation unborn, their great, great, great, great grand children. This is a very expansive philosophy and one that engenders us to a very different value system and way of life. It elevates our lives and working world to one in which we are more about being in service than serving our own wants and needs.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“Living for the seventh generation unborn means that we live each day of our lives with full cognizance that everything we do, every food we eat, every speck of dust we disturb, every piece of trash we leave behind, every natural resource we utilize, as well as every thought we have, the words we use, the kindness or compassion we express, or the selfishness we indulge in all have an effect that can carry through the generations to our great, great, great, great grand children.”

The Oral Tradition

Icon The Oral Tradition
As so much of what we do in business is about communication, this Indigenous principle has the most immediate applicability and is foundational to culture shift. Indigenous communication is a practice that over time enables us to slow down the way we talk, to speak in turns, and to come to understand the intentions behind the words that people convey. Equally as important is that it leads us to a way of communicating in which we can more powerfully connect…
More on The Oral Tradition >>

The Way Of Love

Icon The Way of Love
The way of love is not so much a direct teaching of Indigenous culture as it is a byproduct of their way of life. Each of their principles for living represent a way of being that loves each part of their lives. They see themselves as a part of a living system, not separate from, but integral with. And in so being, they naturally love the system, which provides for all life.

Even some of their greatest warriors, those demonized by our American history as slayers of the blue-coated soldiers, were known among their people as incredibly loving beings. So too, can it be with our leadership. That we can be as servant leaders loving our teams, our colleagues, even our vendors and customers.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“Through the daily practice of Indigenous Principles, our capacity to trust into a state of loving our employees, customers, investors, and vendors will come about naturally, but it also requires us to jump into what may seem like an abyss without a net, as the concept of loving our employees and vendors is antithetical to conventional business thinking. No matter how deeply we move into an understanding of Indigenous Principles, in order to integrate all these principles it will require us to step out of our collective comfort zone and risk behaving and conducting ourselves based on an entirely new paradigm.”


Icon Integrity
In many Indigenous languages they do not even have a word for lying, as integrity is foundational to their system of living.
Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“The response that flows from indigenous culture is that we exist as a part of a sacred circle of life, the four directions; that all things are inherently connected, that everything is alive; that every action sets things in motion for the next seven generations unborn; that we strive to be patient and take a long-term approach to our work; that we look deeply to our core motivations, our intentionality; that the words that we use are not themselves as important as the meaning behind them, as in the oral tradition; and that we think of the highest good in all our actions, the way of love. Many, if not all, of the indigenous principles relate in some way or another to the need for living our lives with very high ethical standards.

“It goes without saying that the need for integrity is self-evident, yet the lessons from our indigenous brothers and sisters is that it is not important to be honest so that people will think of us as good people, or that our company is good, or so that we can think of ourselves as being good people or running or working for a good company; the need for integrity is so highly important because it is necessary in order to be right with all that we are connected with … which is everything.”

The Spirit World

Icon The Spirit World
For too many people, perhaps most, the principle of the spirit world moves beyond the realm of applicability to business and enters the world of religion and mysticism. Yet there is an important connecting thread that runs through each of the Indigenous principles and is more fully illuminated in this principle, and that is that there is no distinction between how we live our lives and conduct business. If we truly own our values, we will own and practice them everywhere. Part of the dysfunction in business is that we have convinced ourselves that we can be one way with our families, friends and communities, but when we don our business suit, ‘business is business.’ The beauty here is that there is a vast amount of wisdom and guidance that we are leaving on the table by our complicity in the mythology of the separation of business and personal.

Excerpt from SHIFT: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change:

“The principle of the spirit world is truly vast and precisely consistent from one end of the globe to the other in the Indigenous mindset. It relates to all levels of their society. It is the starting point and the ending point for their understandings. Direct connection with this universe of knowledge and guidance is what anoints the medicine person with the right to perform ceremonies and healings. It is the guiding voice in their ceremonies, their interrelationships, planting cycles, direction for hunts, how to resolve conflict, and so much more.

“Having a strong sense of intuition, a subtle guiding voice that compels us toward a given end is like reaching first base, whereas reaching home plate would represent the domain of a fully ordained medicine person. Unfortunately our modern society does not give us the training to advance beyond first base, and reaching first base alone can be challenging when our lives are filled with myriad forms of media, super fast electronic communications, so many mind-altering substances, both legal and illicit, all serving to drown out the voice of Spirit. In particular, when we work at a frenzied pace for long hours ending in collapse at the end of each day, only to rise in the morning and begin the hustle again, we are unable to slow down enough to reach a place of patience and stillness, and cannot possibly connect with the spirit world in such a state of mind.”

The Warrior Spirit

Icon The Spirit World
The principle of the warrior spirit is important to the integration of all the indigenous principles, as each of these principles requires us to reconsider our place in the world and the nature of how we do things.
More on the Warrior Spirit >>

Learn About Glenn’s Book Shift

Shift: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change


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