Ways Leadership Affects Culture and Culture Affects Leadership

There has been so much written on leadership that there is very little I can really add. Leaders should be story tellers, communicators, holistic, strategic, encouraging, creative, conservative, risk taking, 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 it would not surprise me if you there were close 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 3 City Managers so far and I will outlast this one.” That is the attitude that many leaders face, especially when they are brought in from outside organizations to run or manage large, well established ones. The negative cultures especially can undermine positive leadership as initiatives are actively undermined by managers who have a stake in the old culture. Whether it through manipulation or complacency, negative cultures can be create significant challenges for change.

Negative leadership, however, can have a fast, dramatic affect on a positive culture. WorldCom was a telecom leader and 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 that 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 show that you could build an environmentally friendly corporation that 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 what we call the internal obstacles. False ego, fear, complacency, and preconceived ideas create a negative environment. When change is introduced (see our culture influencers here and change model here) there is resistance, even when the change is positive. People learn different coping mechanisms to avoid the change such as hiding behind procedures, 'office cooler' talk or gossip and complaining, or actively undermining the initiative. The question then becomes how can leadership have a positive impact on the culture of an organization.

Click here to find out ways that leadership affects culture