If you ever doubted the importance of culture as a living, breathing, embedded influence in your organization, try doing something inconsistent with the culture. Try inculcating innovation and entrepreneurship in a culture of unquestioning respect for authority at each level. A slog. Try taking away a seemingly insignificant employee benefit at a company that’s been paternalistic. A mutiny.
Culture is one of the most forceful tools at a leader’s disposal – It may aid you, and it may also stymie your best intentions. Culture is something that shapes us; we can’t help but become part of it, as the psychologist Lev Vygotsky so succinctly notes: “A mind cannot be independent of culture.” But we can also shape culture if we are intentional – and patient:
When culture is operating effectively, everyone in the organization pulls in the same direction and it multiplies the capabilities of any one person, as illustrated in this example:
But there are two ways that culture can create problems for you as a leader. As lumbering as culture is, it is also something that evolves. You can never be sure it hasn’t moved when you weren’t paying attention, and it may not be in directions you anticipate or want:
The other way culture gets in the way of leaders is when they are trying to institute change. Culture represents stasis – a potent force for keeping things just as they are. How do you effect change in the face of impeding culture?
Learning to lead culture is crucial for leaders. It means paying attention to it at all times – what it is aiding, what it is holding back, how it may be evolving, what is influencing it inside and outside the organization. And it means being intentional about building and sustaining the culture you need in order for your organization to be successful. And – spoiler alert – it’s not for the faint of heart. Author James Baldwin reminds us of that: “No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.” Start paying your leadership dues today by intentionally molding your culture.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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