CEO Shoptalk — Counting Coups

As a leader, it is imperative that the company you build and lead is energized from within by taking a moment to celebrate victories. In history, this is called “counting coups.”

The other day I was advising a client and we got to the issue of rewarding accomplishments and behavior.

“Why is this important?” the brilliant CEO asked.

“Because you will get more of whatever behavior your recognize and reward. Reward good performance — more good performance,” said your Big Red Car.

We wandered into a discussion as to how the military did it with a formal awards program wherein an individual was formally recognized by having their exploit written up, memorialized in a citation, and symbolized by a bit of colored ribbon they would wear on their uniform forever. These awards in the military are given in front of one’s unit often at a parade. It is very public moment.

One of my platoon sergeants when I was a young lieutenant had been awarded a DSC. Every payday we wore our green uniforms with ribbons. Every payday I would have him tell the story of how he won the Distinguished Service Cross to my platoon. We were counting coups.

[The troops would always say, “Wow, that Sergeant X is a badass.”]

I told my CEO client that it was a sound practice to develop a talisman that signified the attainment of some extraordinary achievement. In my day, I had the Littlefield Eagle — a small metal statue of an eagle in flight set on a green marble base. I think they cost me about $100.

I would award a few of them per year at an “all hands” meeting with the proviso that if you wanted to convert it into cash I’d buy it back for $1-2,000. I never had any takers.

I found that this also injected energy into the organization as well as providing an exemplar for what it meant to be “excellent” in a growing company. This is the practical payoff. It will energize your company. It will foster more of that behavior. Effortlessly. 

I said to him, “Whatever behavior you laud will be repeated. That is why you count coup.”

“What does that mean, counting coups?” he asked.

The term counting coups comes from the Native American culture wherein they would do battle with an opposing tribe and after the battle the victors would gather around a campfire and “count coups.”

As a general proposition, a coups was a brave act in the face of the enemy that was translated into prestige with the home tribe.

A coups could be a number of different things such as:

 1. touching an enemy, striking an enemy a hard blow and coming away unscathed;

 2. stealing an enemy’s weapons or horses from their camp or lodge and coming away untouched; or,

 3. killing an enemy.

The “prestige” of the coup was magnified by the magnitude of the demonstrated bravery and the magnitude of the risk of injury or death, as well as whether the Indian brave was wounded in the exploit.

After the battle, the warriors would gather around a fire and count coups with each warrior telling his or another’s tale. Then, the assembled mass would recognize the exploit. This peer recognition is from whence the energy flows.

Some tribes had coups sticks upon which their warriors’ coups were recognized by a notch. The more notches a warrior had, the more prestige he was held in by the tribe and the young women of the tribe (see, was alive and working even around the campfires of ancient times).

Some tribes would tie an eagle feather to the warriors’ coup sticks. The feather would be painted red if the warrior had been wounded in the exploit. Sort of like a combat star on a paratrooper’s jump wings if he jumps into combat.

If you want to recognize extraordinary behavior as a means to obtaining more of it — COUNT COUPS.

Think how you might do this. Why? Because it works.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Count coup!