There has been so much writ­ten on lead­er­ship in the last year, it’s hard to keep track of it all. Lead­ers should be sto­ry­tellers, com­mu­ni­ca­tors, holis­tic, strate­gic, encour­ag­ing, cre­ative, con­ser­v­a­tive, risk tak­ing, eth­i­cal, com­pet­i­tive, inspir­ing and a whole host of oth­er attributes.

There are count­less 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 con­tent offer­ing thought and insight, you have to won­der why lead­er­ship 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 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 or strug­gle to accept the changes inher­ent in the mod­ern work­place. Whether it’s through manip­u­la­tion or com­pla­cen­cy, neg­a­tive cul­tures can cre­ate sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for change. At the same time, pos­i­tive lead­er­ship can over­come neg­a­tive cul­ture and turn the tide over time. A few encour­ag­ing results and pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences can go a long way.

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. We’ve seen in recent times the reac­tion employ­ees and the pub­lic have to com­pa­nies who fail to address their stance on social issues, harass­ment, pay gaps and whose polit­i­cal lean­ings go against what employ­ees view to be the com­mon good.

As a result, lead­ers find them­selves hav­ing to pub­licly make state­ments con­demn­ing sys­temic racism, polit­i­cal vio­lence and oth­er top­ics that aren’t easy to talk about with­out offend­ing some­one or putting one­self at risk. But ulti­mate­ly, the eth­i­cal stands a leader takes becomes a part of the organization’s culture.

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 remote work land­scape changes some of this as employ­ee com­mu­ni­ca­tions can be more eas­i­ly mon­i­tored and there are few­er “water cool­er” moments on offer to begin with. But neg­a­tiv­i­ty can me a bit like try­ing to con­tain water in an enclosed space. If there’s a place for it to leak through, it like­ly will. 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% 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.

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