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How Leadership Affects Culture and Culture Affects Leadership
So much has been written on leadership that I can’t really add up. Leaders should be storytellers, communicators, holistic, strategic, encouraging, creative, conservative, risk taking, ethical, competitive, inspirational and a whole host of other qualities too numerous to mention. There are currently 940 books available on the subject and it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve got over half a million articles on the subject. It is the bread and butter of every consulting firm around the world. So much thought and insight, why is this still a problem?
The answer lies with culture. The whole purpose of leadership is to create a culture. It can be difficult for an outsider to implement a new culture in a large and well-established organization. So, does leadership create a culture or does culture create a leadership? The answer to both questions is yes.
Culture influences leadership
“I’ve been here 25 years.” said the director of a large municipality. “I’ve outlasted 3 city managers so far and I’ll outlast this one.” This is the attitude that many leaders face, especially when they are brought in from outside organizations to lead or manage large, well-established organizations. Negative cultures can especially undermine positive leadership because initiatives are actively undermined by managers who have a stake in the old culture. Whether it’s through manipulation or complacency, a negative culture can pose significant challenges to change.
Negative leadership, however, can have a quick, dramatic impact on a positive culture. WorldCom was a telecom leader and had a very innovative culture until Bernie Ebbers took over. By extracting what he could from the environment and forcing employees to work less, he was robbing the company. Turnover soared and within a few years WorldCom was bankrupt.
Culture as a function of leadership
Companies reflect the ethics of the leaders who manage them. Bob Page felt like an outsider and had to hide his sexuality. When he created Replacements Limited he ensured that it would be a place that embraced diversity of thought and not just lifestyle and invested in building their community. Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop to show that you can create an environmentally friendly corporation that reflects her commitment to environmental activism. Jim Goodnight’s commitment to work-life balance is part of the culture of SAS, the world’s largest privately held company. Jack Welch’s commitment to excellence created an environment of excellence at General Electric. In each of these cases, the leader’s ethics become a central part of the culture.
Barriers to culture change
The real barriers to culture change are what we call internal barriers. False ego, fear, complacency, and preconceptions create a negative environment. When change is introduced there is resistance, even if the change is positive. People learn various coping mechanisms to avoid change, such as hiding behind procedures, ‘office cooler’ talk or gossiping and complaining, or actively undermining initiative. The question then becomes how leadership can positively impact an organization’s culture.
How leadership can influence culture
Whether a leader emerges through the organization or is brought in from outside to drive organizational change, there are ways that leadership can impact culture.
1. Walk the talk People see what you do, not what you say And leaders value, not what they say When Enron’s CEO Kenneth Lay and his management team were stealing from shareholders, many of his businessmen were laughing their heads off. The bills were going to bankrupt the little old lady. This is the hardest part of leadership. Having worked with people who wrote books on the subject, I can tell you that often their actions did not match their words and the effect was that many people did not respect them. When you say you’re going to do something, you have to follow through and do it.
2. Reward and enforcement are a function of ethics. .
We value what we recognize. How are people rewarded or recognized? For example, if you want collaboration and teamwork and then reward people for ‘hitting their numbers’, their strengths will be recognized for them. Jim Goodnight from SAS applies that people only work 37.5 hours a week because if they work late they will be wasted and therefore less productive. If ‘yes’ people are promoted, the culture will see that compliance is the only way to succeed and you will create a hierarchical culture.
3. Be passionate
Passion is contagious and people love to be a part of it. As the Marine Corp Leadership Program says, “People will follow you because they have to or because they want to, and who do you want with a gun to your back?” When you motivate people to change, you literally reprogram their brains and they will take ownership to ensure success.
4. Network with organizations
Many senior leaders are removed from the front lines, which is literally where the tires hit the road. They ultimately create culture. Many leaders really only communicate with their direct reports, which gives them a skewed view of what’s going on. What is actually happening on the front lines of the organization? Who are active and passive in the organization? Promotion within organizations has only one benefit – they know people. Of course, problems within the organization may call for new leadership. Networking is important in any culture. You have culture and many leaders think there is culture.
A few years ago, I heard this story from a client. He was upset that the company was getting rid of their smoking room because smoking was banned by law from the entire building. “I don’t smoke though,” he told me. “I was amazed at what was happening there. People were really talking regardless of title because they had one thing in common – an addiction. One day a senior vice president came up to me and told me he was talking to this guy. About labor relations. He had some good advice that he wanted to implement. He asked me who he was, I looked it up and found out that he was part of the custodial staff. He was literally the janitor.”
Leaders need to remove layers around them to create “smoking rooms”.
5. Communicate clearly
This may sound like an obvious statement but in the absence of clear communication there is vague and informal communication, i.e. gossip. Gossip can undermine any change and have a negative impact on culture. People appreciate honest and straightforward communication, even when it’s negative. The worst part is not knowing.
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