Leadership and Culture – Take it from the Top

When we are young and idealistic, and first begin to work inside a company or organization, we tend to think that anything is possible. Of course, company leadership will change direction as new challenges arise and common sense prevails.

Of course! Yeah, sure…

Over time, we awaken to the fact that organizational culture – that way of thinking, feeling, and behaving, that set of expectations and motivations and worldviews that inexorably shapes the group – is a far more powerful force than common sense. Or our superior ideas. And it comes right from the top.

The leaders set and maintain organizational culture. Not the worker bees. You’ll either find it pleasant (or at least tolerable), or you’ll need to move on. If you stay in a culture that is a serious mis-match, you are asking for misery.

Why do existing cultures tend to have such a powerful and enduring influence? Here are several reasons – perhaps you can add others in the comments.

  1. Most leaders don’t like to be challenged – either personally, or in fielding a potential threat to the status quo. Change hurts.
  2. Over time, those who tend to embrace the values and attitudes of the organization rise to the top, and non-conformists are weeded out. Cultural self-selection reigns.
  3. People prefer to take on external “enemies” (competitors, market conditions, customers). It’s always easier to go after what’s out there, instead of doing the immensely difficult work of re-shaping internal culture.
  4. Most organizations were built around hierarchical models that were a response to the market conditions of the time. Large swaths of “the way it’s done here” are now assumed, even though the world has now moved well past the point where those things make any sense.

While it is possible to engineer some levels of change from a lower level of the organization, by and large, if you sense that there isn’t an openness to having the corporate culture questioned and improved, the end result will be beating your head against a wall. And, with the additional bonus of being viewed as a malcontent. Better to read the writing on that wall early on, and find a place to belong that is a “fit;” or, if you can, start your own company.

Those that hold the reins of power set the tone. Period. Be careful that you don’t just accept a job offer. Take a careful look at the leaders and the culture they are setting. And ask yourself with brutal honesty: Will I fit?

Because the culture isn’t going to change for you.

We’re going to be talking about Leadership and Culture this Tuesday (March 8th, 8 pm ET) during #LeadershipChat on Twitter. Be sure to read the thoughts of my co-moderator, Lisa Petrilli, on this topic. And, take a look at our brand spanking new LeadershipChat website, which we’ll continue to expand with new features in the coming weeks.


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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

7 Responses to Leadership and Culture – Take it from the Top

  1. Pingback: March Topics « Leadership Chat

  2. Steve, you and Lisa really struck a chord in me this week. Leadership clearly sets the tone for any enterprise’s culture and then should shape and re-shape it as the environment changes. The “best “cultures” actually incorporate the need for change as part of its culture!

    As to your first point about inflexibility due to the fact leaders don’t like challenges… I might refine that a bit and say most leaders don’t create safe environments for honest, candid conversation. To butcher a childhood story, most emperors don’t like to be told they look bad with their clothes off! It is through humility and honesty about one’s flaws and shortcoming that can create the safety necessary to engage all your employees. My experience as a coach tells me some leaders will grab that “humble” flag and lead with it… and yet too many see humility as a weakness. Sadly and to the contrary, real sustainable and enduring success comes from Level V leadership, a humble leader. Jim Collins nailed that in his research.

    Great post; many thanks.

  3. John Mack says:

    I don’t think this gives the “bees” enough credit. Good leaders understand that the people they lead are responsible for maintaining the culture of an organization. Leading means making sure that there is an atmosphere in which employees have a stake in maintaining the culture. The “bees” can play a role in correcting mistakes if the atmosphere allows it.

    Take J&J for example. It’s culture was violated by its own leaders! And the “bees” were not empowered to help fix it. All they could do was leave the organization or keep quiet.

  4. Interesting subject. I can tell you first hand that I have run counter-culture many times – and found it best to move on. Whether it is the speed of decision making or adversity to risk – and in one case, just a very mean and angry culture (from a major unnamed oil company once located in florham park nj). Yet I have also experienced dynamic “intrepreneurial” cultures – even within a larger conservative one. And thrived!

    I have also seen culture shift as a start-up company grew beyond it’s initial gung-ho company-dna employees to… well staff. In five years time it went from entrepreneurial, fun, hard working.. to just another company. Sad.

    I think that in certain cases; a leader can inspire cultural change – more likely in selected divisions or groups. Skunk-works come to mind. However in massive organizations; I would say that leaders “say” they can and will change the culture – but that it is not realistic or possible. From my experience…

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