So much has been written about leadership that there is very little I can really add. Leaders must be storytellers, communicators, holistic, strategic, encouraging, creative, conservative, risk takers, ethical, competitive, inspiring, and a whole host of other attributes that are too numerous to mention. There are 940 books currently available on the subject and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were close to half a million articles on the subject. It is the bread and butter of all consulting companies around the world. With so much thought and insight, why is it still a problem?
The answer is in the culture. The whole purpose of leadership is to create a culture. In a large, well-established organization, it can be difficult for someone from the outside to implement a new culture. So does leadership create culture or does culture create leadership? The answer to both questions is yes.
Culture Affecting Leadership
“I’ve been here 25 years.” said the director of a large municipality. “I have survived 3 city managers so far and I will survive this one.” That’s the attitude many leaders face, especially when they come from outside organizations to lead or manage large, well-established organizations. Negative cultures, in particular, can undermine positive leadership, as managers with stakes in the old culture actively undermine initiatives. Whether through manipulation or complacency, negative cultures can create significant challenges for change.
However, negative leadership can have a quick and dramatic effect on a positive culture. WorldCom was a leader in telecommunications and a very innovative culture until Bernie Ebbers took over. As he squeezed every hundred he could out of the environment and pressured employees to work harder with less, he was plundering the company. Turnover skyrocketed, and within a few years, WorldCom went bankrupt.
Culture as a function of leadership
Companies reflect the ethics of the leaders who run them. Bob Page felt like an outsider and had to hide his sexuality from him. When he built Replacements Ltd. he made sure it would be a place that embraces diversity not only in lifestyle but also in thought and would invest in building his community. Anita Roddick founded the Body Shop to demonstrate that an environmentally friendly corporation could be built that reflected her commitment to environmental activism. Jim Goodnight’s commitment to work-life balance is part of the culture of SAS, the world’s largest private company. Jack Welch’s commitment to being the best created an environment of excellence at General Electric. In each of these cases, the leader ethic became a central part of the culture.
Obstacles to cultural change
The real obstacles to cultural change are what we call internal obstacles. False ego, fear, complacency, and preconceptions create a negative environment. When a change is introduced, there is resistance, even when the change is positive. People learn different coping mechanisms to avoid change, such as hiding behind procedures, talk or gossip and complaining, or actively undermining the initiative. The question then is how can leadership have a positive impact on the culture of an organization.
How can leadership influence culture?
Whether a leader emerges through the organization or is brought in from the outside to change the organization, there are ways that leadership can impact culture.
1. Walk the Talk People watch what you do, not just what you say and the leader’s values, not just what you say. laughing at how they were going to bankrupt the old ladies on their heating bills. This is the hardest part of leadership. Having worked with people who have written books on the subject, I can tell you that many times their actions did not match their words and the effect was that many people did not respect them. When you say you are going to do something, you need to follow through and do it.
2. Rewards and compliance 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’, your energies will be in what they are known for. SAS’s Jim Goodnight dictates that people only work 37.5 hours a week because they will burn out if they work late and therefore be less productive. If the ‘yes’ people are promoted, then the culture will see that conforming is the only way to succeed and a hierarchical culture will be created.
3. Be passionate
Passion is contagious and people like to be a part of it. As the saying goes in the Marine Corp. leadership program goes, “People will follow you because they have to or because they want to and who do you want with a gun on their back?” When you inspire people to make changes, you literally rewire their brains and they will take ownership to ensure success.
4. Connect with the organization
Many senior leaders are well away from the front lines, which is literally where the tire hits the road. These are the people who ultimately create the culture. Many leaders really only interact with their direct reports, giving them a skewed idea of what’s going on. What is really happening on the front lines of the organization? Who are the enablers and resisters in the organization? That is the only advantage of promoting within the organization: they know the people. Of course, problems within the organization may require new leadership. Either way, it’s important to network in the culture. There is the culture that you have and the culture that many leaders think they have.
Several years ago, I heard this story from a client. He was upset that the organization got rid of its smoking rooms because smoking was prohibited by law in the entire building. “I don’t smoke though,” he told me. “I was amazed at what was going on there. People were really talking regardless of the title because they had one thing in common: an addiction. One day a senior vice president came up to me and told me about this guy he was talking to. He had a number of very good suggestions regarding labor relations that he wanted to implement. He asked me who he was, and I looked him up and found out he was part of the cleaning staff. He was literally the janitor.”
Leaders must remove the layers around them and build “smoking rooms.”
5. Communicate clearly
It may sound like an obvious statement, but in the absence of clear communication, there is unclear and informal communication, i.e. gossip. Gossip can undermine any change and have a negative impact on the culture. People appreciate honest and direct communication, even when it’s negative. The worst part is not knowing.