It is not anymore about the team, it is now about the tribe. Industry leader in team building and leadership Philip Folsom shares how to build your tribe in business and in life. Moving away from the concept of a team, a tribe has become the people who are beyond acquaintances or transactional business partners. Philip talks about how to build a legitimate relationship-based collaborative connection. He gives great insights into creating an environment where people feel safe and healthy, which ultimately increases productivity and loyalty. Making a play on words, he also puts forward the notion that to decide is connected to suicide and homicide where you are literally killing off other ideas. Philip goes deep into all of this as he lays down in metaphors on why we need better relationships in our businesses.
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Build Your Tribe with Philip Folsom
My guest is Philip Folsom. He’s gone into the dark woods. What he learned there is that individuals and organizations can do and be anything if two things are in place. One, a model of success and two, the tools to reach it. He’s got game-changing tools that have improved over 500,000 people’s lives in the last many years through his work. He’s acknowledged he’s an industry leader in team building and leadership, especially the Los Angeles High Ropes Challenge courses where he has a Professional Development Adventure Program. He came from Washington State. He has a great story he’s going to share about being raised by a single mom and joining the Army at seventeen. His own hero’s journey of hitting rock bottom and coming back up and helping everyone who works with him and encounters him heal. Philip, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure and an honor being here.
I like to ask my guests to take us back as far as they want to the story of origin. Did you always know you loved animals? Tell us about your journey. You can you can start when you joined the Army or you can start earlier than that. I want to give people a timeline of what happened to you that caused you to become an expert in this.
Part of the theme when we talk about the hero’s journey or any type of narrative related to that is that it’s only by going into the shadow that we are able to excavate our gold. That’s a vital component of my story and all of ours. I grew up in classic pre-trauma environments of some neglect and some poverty. It was pretty abject challenges when I was growing up. My dad left early. I went into the Army at seventeen. Like a lot of us, I didn’t go in out of patriotism. I went in there as a means of escaping the situation I was in. In the Army, I had some acute trauma piled on top of chronic trauma. When I got out it was brought to my attention that I had some challenges that I had to deal with. I dropped out of grad school and went on to as a contemporary Vision Quest experience where I studied meditation. I studied equestrian therapy and Outward Bound adventure programming and archery.
What I discovered about myself was that there was healing to be done. It was a choice that became available to me. One of the big themes is the choices of the function of awareness. A lot of people simply aren’t realizing that they have the opportunity to heal and expand and grow and connect and claim the title of hero of their own story. I was always a minor character. In fact, inside of me, there still is a little kid who is marginalized, unsuccessful and terrified of being revealed. I have to acknowledge him. I keep him right next to me. I don’t let him get behind me. I don’t let him blindside me and undermine me. I want to have that little rat sitting right next to me so I can keep an eye on him. I can choose to have him sit down. I get to be the full king of my kingdom now instead of the minor Prince character.Going beyond team building is tribe building. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk a little bit about the equestrian therapy and how that tie into also what you’re doing with the SPARTA Project?
Equestrian therapy is incredibly powerful. My horse guru is Cheyenne Price. She’s an amazing six-foot blonde horse guru. She has the ability to utilize her animals and tap directly into whatever secret stuff is going on. Horses are prey, which is different than us. We are predators. We have eyes in the front and we are designed for acquisition. One of the secrets of success is to be able to turn whatever it is that we want to have a shift in our life into an acquisition story instead of an avoidant story. Predators don’t like to lose anything including weight. Instead of losing weight, I want to gain fitness. All of a sudden, this reticulate activating system gets triggered and we look for opportunities to gain fitness. The horses are the opposite. They are prey animals, so they move away from energy. It’s a different dynamic. If you can learn how that communication system works, all of a sudden it allows us this tremendous desktop experience of being able to manage our emotions and connect with those things. They see right through you.
The moment you walk into the round pen, here’s a big naked 2,000-pound animal that knows exactly what’s going on with us energetically. We’ve stuffed down our animal nature to the point where we are in our head a lot of the time. Horses can’t afford to do that and they don’t have that available. They know if you’re a bully. They know if you’re an impostor. When I trump in with all of my masculinity and my boots and whatnot, they call me immediately on it like, “You’re not all that.” Come down to your real level and then we can engage with a conversation and a relationship that’s healthy. Once you’ve earned that respect and trust, now we can engage with some different forms of more robust conflict. The horses are one of the animals I use. The other one are wolves. That’s probably not been my favorite thing over the last couple of years.
In fact, your tagline is, “The time of the lone wolf is over.” If you wouldn’t mind sharing why does a lone wolf cry? How does that relate to wolves never biting each other as dogs do? That’s a fascinating insight you have.
We have to start with the reality that we are pack animals. In addition to being predators, we’re pack animal. We have things called mirror neurons, which is this synaptic, legitimate neuron-type that we have that gets triggered when we are connected with another member of our tribe. It releases serotonin. It also is the source of empathy and compassion. We need each other. We need it at a cellular level if we’re going to feel good about ourselves. Wolves are the same. Wolves are also a pack animal. They’re predators. They have mirror neurons and so do horses. What’s happened in our society is that instead of being in our kinship-based tribal systems, we have gotten successful that we’re living in these giant mega tribes. We have moved out of that sweet spot of about 50 to 75 people that we can maintain deep relationships with. We’ve shifted from being personal, connected and collaborative, vision, mission, value-sharing partners to these impersonal relationships we move around with and it’s anxiety-producing for us.
What happens is when we’re looking at the big drivers of wellness, health and success, it comes down to relationships. This has been studied scientifically from not only longevity but in your specific field of sales and business success. It’s all about relationships and getting those skills. The wolves, why I use them are that they are designed to hunt big game. We are also designed to hunt big game. Except for our big game now and we start looking at our lives is the game of doing something that provides meaning, purpose, service and something bigger than us. If we are going to be able to move towards those big goals in our life, we need other people. We need them beyond an acquaintance or a transactional business partner, but a legitimate relationship-based collaborative connection.
It always comes down to the team and over and over. No matter how big or small the company is, it’s how well does that team get along and respect each other.
Beyond team is a tribe. The tribe is people who are not only connected at a mission or accomplishment level and a visual level which is here’s our job. Beyond the job is what’s the why? What’s the meaning? Why does this exist? Why am I being willing to share and donate eight hours of my day to this cause? It needs to be that important. That’s a tribe.
Part of the way the wolves operate as a pack in their particular tribe is they may fight, but they don’t ever bite each other. Can you explain the difference of how dogs fight versus wolves and how that impacts us in our business life?
When we need somebody, if you have a partner that you need to be able to show up and deliver for you to sell a house or in the case of SpaceX to be able to get to Mars. You’re talking big game stuff. You need those people to do their job. You can’t afford to have them be compromised in any way, which means instead of vague, undermining, politicking gossip, competing with those people. You want to now be reciprocal and be the best cheerleader those people you can because they are an extension of yourself. When we’re talking about tribal or partnership relationships, you want that partner to be absolutely at their sharpest, their most powerful and they’re most resilient. You can’t afford to undermine them. In the case of wolves, they can’t afford to bite each other. It takes ten wolves to pull down an elk.Choice is a function of awareness. Click To Tweet
If they compromise the strength of the pack by infighting, they all starve. This is a hard-wired behavior amongst the wolves because they have that taboo against biting each other. It’s a survival mechanism. All of a sudden, they have the opportunity to express and discharge conflict almost nonstop. They squabble. They talk. They snarl. They posture. They also play because once they have discharged any of that immediate conflict that they’re having, then they get to be completely clean with each other. They run off and play and engage with whatever they’re doing without having that weird, toxic, stuffed down experience that we have when we can’t express our feelings. Sigmund Freud calls that the Theory of Hydraulics, “Whatever we shove down, it’s coming out somewhere else.”
I’ve heard the term that it’s leaking out the anxiety or the stress. What you’re doing with the SPARTA Project, it’s a non-profit for veterans and emergency first responders who are dealing with post-traumatic stress. How does your work with the wolves if at all impact that? What are you doing to help people overcome that?
We are running a cohort. It’s a five-day residential free program for veterans and first responders. This is an all-female cohort starting. We’re proud to be running this program. We run off donations. If you or somebody else you know is interested in giving back to a lean, non-profit, TheSPARTAProject.org is the name of that. We use what’s called a parallel process, which means we are going through this journey along with the veterans because all the good facilitators, all the good storytellers, yourself included. You’ve come from a place where you had to go on that journey. You had to go into the woods and you discovered that the only way out is through. We have to get all the way through the story. We have to resolve.
It’s different than the medical model where there’s a smart person telling you how you should live your life or how you should refill your strategic objectives at work. Good people are co-creators. You mentioned that even when you’re talking about engaging with your clients in a co-creation process. It’s the difference between a doctor and a midwife. The doctor gets to deliver the baby. The mothers who are reading this blog, you know the doctor didn’t deliver the baby. You delivered the baby. The truth is that we’re here to facilitate the creation of whatever that project or healing is for our clients and where they are to be. Sometimes a cheerleader, sometimes its support, sometimes it’s an accountability partner.
That’s what we’re doing with the veterans and first responders are we’re going through this journey with them because we’ve been through the dark woods. We know what’s in there. We know the road that will get us out. The wolves heal each other. Here’s another shout out to a great lean nonprofit, ApexProtectionProject.org. They rescue and rehabilitate wolves and wolf dogs that have been abused, mistreated and neglected. They bring them out to their sanctuary. They slowly integrate them into their healthy pack and the pack heals the wolves. This is how we as humans are going to heal each other are that we need to build the relationships. We need to be able to discharge our shame. We need to be able to go through and feel the pain and get honest with each other. This is true at a relationship level and also at an organizational level. When you’re looking at all the big societal challenges that are happening in our industries, at some point we’re going to have to go all the way through this piece and get the healing done.
The other thing that is surprising about you because you present an extremely alpha male. The way you dress and the fact that you’re outdoors with animals and wolves and horses. You’ve got the hat. You’ve got the whole Indiana Jones vibe going on. Yet you also spent several years as a professional ballet dancer. I’m fascinated to hear that story. How did you go from being in the Army and hitting rock bottom? Ballet is traditionally something that people start very young or something that typically only wealthy people are involved with. It’s a cultural artsy niche. How did that come about?
If I have received any divine blessings, one of them is the ability to go on weird journeys that for some reason people are not allowed to do. I can thank my strange parents for that. I grew up on a commune. I grew up pretty alternative and maybe that little chunk of experience allowed me to go on some weird journeys that are different than other people. Thanks, mom, thanks dad for that. One of them was I got out of the military and I had to take a PE class in community college. I was going through all of my challenges and trying to reintegrate. I was trying to do things as far off of the military as I could. I was looking for balance. The military is highly structured. It’s hyper-masculine. Here was an opportunity to get a PE credit and do something that was much more expressive and much softer. I took a ballet class in a community college. I enjoyed it. It was fun. The teacher said, “I’d be willing to give you some free classes if you come down and do some of the partnering work.”
I was out of the Army. I was twenty years old and strong. It sounded like fun to me. I was taking classes one evening and a bunch of strangers showed up in the class that I hadn’t seen before. I was taking classes with kids. It turned out it was an audition class for the Spokane Ballet Company. There weren’t any tall guys and the prima ballerina of the Spokane Ballet at the time was Rachel Ferrelli, a big six-foot Italian lady. The ballet director said, “Have you ever wanted to be a dancer?” I said, “What does that mean?” “I’m looking for a partner for Rachel Ferrelli and all you got to do is learn how to partner well and look good in tights.” I said, “Let’s do that.” It led me down to Los Angeles. I danced at the Los Angeles Ballet and I danced with a bunch of companies down here. I was never a good dancer. I had done enough martial arts and I looked good in tights.
I know a lot of professional athletes, football players, in particular, do a lot of ballet work to be agile and things. It all fits into your work because you’re working with companies like Sony, DreamWorks and Apple helping them as a high-performance tribe culture coach. Can you tell us what that looks like? Who would hire you? What problem are you solving typically? Give us an example or story of an outcome of someone after working with you.
Stepping back from that, I spent many years doing team building at a local company in Los Angeles. What I was noticing is that it wasn’t changing anybody. I was seeing the same clients that would show up year after year. They were having the same challenges. I realized something that our industry is doing is not creating sustainable results. I’m in my 50s right now. We start looking at legacy. You start thinking about the purpose. What impact did I leave with this? Did I move the conversation forward? I would define that as the transition from passion, which is kindling, it burned hot, fast and easy. It’s me-centric and then transitioning from that passion into purpose, which is like a big log. It’s something that carries a tremendous amount of energy, but it’s hard to get it lit. We get to into this point in our career where we’ve got a lot of skills and we’ve done our 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. We start looking at those bigger purpose conversations of, “What I want to do in the world?” Usually, it’s not about us anymore. It’s about what’s the service component. I eventually started realizing that I had to do a couple of things in my career if I was going to achieve organizational transformation with my clients.It's only by going into the shadow that we are able to excavate our gold. Click To Tweet
I needed to start understanding strategy. I also needed to start understanding the culture of the organization because it’s easy to change people short-term. If we go out and do something together, there’s going to be an immediate boost in morale, trust and some other fast-burn drivers of energy. We immediately are going to revert back to our baseline of behavior and that baseline is culture. We need to be able to go into a culture and we need to fix that. What is culture? What are the components of it? That was when I got to start growing in my true passion, which beyond healing people is understanding humanity. I studied Paleoanthropology at UCLA. How does our species work? It turns out that journey is a perfect dovetail to upgrading the culture of organizations because the reality is we’re no longer kinship-based animals. We are career-based. Our work teams are the new tribes. That is the anthropological reality.
I’ve studied with the Maasai in Africa and all over the world. When we go in to study these people, there are certain formats about looking at how a culture works. That’s the same thing that business consultants are doing. They’re going in and going, “How was your alignment with vision? Does everybody understand exactly what the mission parameters are? Your strategy? Your tactics? How is morale? How are your values operating?” This is straight anthropology work, but it also allows people to co-create and participate in their culture. This is that time where we get to now have access to all of this tremendous information of humanity and be able to create the cultures that we want to have at work, which is hopefully they’re going to be healthy. More importantly, they’re going to be high-performing. That means we’re going to be able to be competitive, innovative, resilient and have high retention. These are all things that from a business standpoint are the primary profit drivers of the business. Culture does that for them. I work at SpaceX. I do a lot of work with Red Bull. I work at Universal and other industries.
What you’re helping them do is create a safe environment where people can express concerns or confusion or even new ideas without being heavily ridiculed or criticized. That healthy feedback loop from working with you on adjusting their culture allows companies to attract and retain top employees and to even be more productive with those that are there.
One of the unique things that myself and some other people are doing is that you cannot decrease safety. It doesn’t work. Creating safe spaces at universities where there’s no hate talking, it’s not ever going to work. At some point, you have to shape an environment where people are either resilient enough to handle pushback or they’re treating each other as extensions of themselves. At which point they can give feedback, but they’re not biting each other. You cannot write trust and safety up on the break room wall and go, “Now we have a safe environment.” It doesn’t change anything. You have to shape the environment so that it’s changing behavior.
You do that by taking people out into nature and doing all these group activities together that build trust and bonds as opposed to being an intellectual concept.
Those big challenging activities, which are my adventure Vision Quest stuff. I do ropes courses and other big epic things. Those are not creating character, they are only revealing it. The creation process happens during reflection and process. This is one of the things that we don’t do well and most organizations don’t because we are over-programmed and we don’t have time to reflect. A lot of the time we are simply jumping right into, “What’s happening in Q2? We need to get those numbers.” There needs to be that moment of breath where we go, “Are we in alignment? Are we creating the outcomes and the experience that we want to have?” This is something that is on a micro level with us and also on the macro level with big industries is there should be at least some breath in between Q1 and Q2 where you go, “Are we in alignment with our vision and values? Are those things correct?”
When we make a decision, we’re killing other ideas. In the business world, if you’re in sales, in particular, you’re asking people to buy what you’re offering. Therefore, you have to have some empathy that if they buy what you’re selling, they’re going to be making some changes and other options or ideas are therefore being killed off. Can you elaborate on that? It also helps people with addictions, which was mind-boggling to me with food. Anything you can talk about around that would be interesting?
When we look at the word decide, it contains the same entomological root as a homicide, suicide. It means in Latin to cut or kill. When I decide something, I’m killing off my other options. In economics, that will be your opportunity cost. If I want to find out how I’m making decisions, I need to pop the hood and take a look at what are my priorities. Even the word ‘priorities’ is a new term. Usually, that’s only a priority. It’s singular. What is the one priority of all those hundreds of things that I want to experience more of in my life? What’s the one that bubbled to the top and I made that decision and killed off all the rest of those things? That one top priority would be my highest operating value. When we’re looking at either individual or organizational decision making, change management. If we want to ever get in the driver’s seat of being able to make intentional directional courses as we move through our world, I need to at some point take a look at what are my values? Those values are driving the decisions of the things that I’m killing off. Organizational values are not simply a fun thing to put on your website in the break room. If they’re correctly implemented, then they are guiding the navigation of your organization.
Philip, you’ve been a great guest. Your website is PhilipFolsom.com. They can sign up for a newsletter. What’s the best place to follow you on social media might be?
I’m Philip Folsom at LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook. That’s my website as well. Please jump on my newsletter because there is more of this strange esoteric but hopefully relevant and powerful information coming. In addition, there’s a monthly open program for people who want to spend a day with the wolves and me. There are cool change agents and seekers. I encourage you to stay involved. Keep changing the world and that starts with ourselves. It’s been an absolute honor, John.People don't realize that they have the opportunity to heal, expand, grow, connect, and claim the title of the hero of their own story. Click To Tweet
Thanks, Philip. It’s been insightful, entertaining and inspiring. I can’t wait to keep up with new ways you are impacting the world with animals and tribes.
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