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The Culture Club

Ways Leadership Affects Culture and Culture Affects Leadership

Michael Rosenberg
Contributor: Michael Rosenberg
Posted: 07/24/2008

There has been so much written on leadership. Leaders should be story tellers, communicators, holistic, strategic, encouraging, creative, conservative, risk taking, ethical, competitive, inspiring and a whole host of other attributes. There are probably 940 books currently available on the subject, and it would not surprise me if there were close to over half a million articles on the subject. It is the bread and butter of every consulting firm throughout the world. With so much thought and insight, why is it still an issue?

The answer lies with culture. The entire purpose of leadership is to create a culture. In a large and well-established organization it can be difficult for an outsider to implement a new culture. So, does leadership create a culture or does culture create a leadership? The answer to both questions is yes.

Culture Affecting Leadership

"I have been here 25 years," said the director of a large municipality. "I have outlasted three city managers so far, and I will outlast this one." This is the attitude many leaders face, especially when they are brought in from outside organizations to run or manage large, well-established ones. The negative cultures can especially undermine positive leadership as initiatives are actively undermined by managers who have a stake in the old culture. Whether it’s through manipulation or complacency, negative cultures can create significant challenges for change.

Negative leadership, however, can have a fast, dramatic effect on a positive culture. WorldCom was a telecom leader and had a very innovative culture until Bernie Ebbers took over. While squeezing every cent he could from the environment and putting pressure on employees to work harder with less, he was pillaging 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 run them. Bob Page felt like an outsider and had to hide his sexuality. When he built Replacements, Ltd., he ensured everyone it would be a place that accepted diversity—not just of lifestyle but of thought—and would invest in building their community. Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop to build an environmentally-friendly corporation, which reflected her commitment to environmental activism. Jim Goodnight's commitment to work-life balance is part of the culture at SAS, the largest privately-held company in the world. Jack Welch's commitment to being the best created an environment of excellence at General Electric. In each of these cases, the ethics of the leader became a central part of the culture.

The Obstacles to Culture Change

The real obstacles to culture change are internal obstacles. False ego, fear, complacency and preconceived ideas create a negative environment. When change is introduced there is resistance, even when the change is positive. People learn different coping mechanisms to avoid the change, such as hiding behind procedures, "water cooler" talk or actively undermining the initiative. The question then becomes how leadership can have a positive impact on the culture of an organization.

Ways Leadership Can Positively Affect Culture

People are inspired by vision. They want to follow a leader who shows concerns and values that are important to them. A positive leader will inspire 100 percent effort from everybody. Here are some signs of a good leader and how the leader affects the culture:

  • Visionaries and strategic thinkers: A boss tells you what to do, while a leader inspires you to want to do it. Leaders who lay out a vision that people buy into and a strategy that they understand will create a culture of engagement. People know where the organization is headed, how it will get there and their role in helping achieve the vision.
  • Ethics that support values: People look at what you do and not what you say. Values are words, ethics are actions. When leaders demonstrate values through their actions, they lead by example and create an ethical culture.
  • Empowerment: There are three requirements for: responsibility, accountability and authority. Leaders who empower people to make decisions that affect their lives, give them the authority to act and make them take responsibility for consequences create leadership on all levels of the organization. Micromanaging means people are not entrusted to be leaders and very little gets done because all decisions need to be made by one person.

The real measurement of leadership is the culture it creates. In future articles, we will explore how to build each of these points to create a positive and powerful culture.

Michael Rosenberg
Contributor: Michael Rosenberg
Posted: 07/24/2008