DO LEADERS CREATE CULTURE?

by Rich Mesch

Do great leaders create great culture? Or does great culture create great leaders?

That’s the core question is a though-provoking article from Deloitte, The Culture or the Leader: An Organizational View of the Chicken or the Egg Question. Do leaders create culture through their actions? Or does a leader need to adapt his or her actions to suit the culture? The article appears to argue that a company needs to create a culture that is aligned with its goals, and its leaders need to align with that culture.

Reading the article caused one of my colleagues to query, “can a good leader be successful in a bad culture?” The answer is yes, but the leader has to be pretty smart about it. Leaders can rarely be successful by defying culture; culture is stronger than that. Think back to Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Drucker knew that a caustic culture can undermine even the smartest strategy.

But company culture doesn’t come from nothing. Culture is based on the systems, processes, and values of the organization. The behavior you get is the behavior you encourage, reward, and reinforce. If a leader wants to change culture, they need to first change at least some of the process that led to that culture.

Here’s a real-life example: I was recently talking to a friend who is frustrated by her boss, because she wants to change the culture of the organization, but she is doing that by instructing her direct reports to ignore all of the conventions of the culture and do things her way. “Her way” might actually be better, but her direct reports are going to get eaten alive by a culture that has no structure or supports for the new way of doing things.

Leaders can drive productive change in a culture if they acknowledge the cultural hurdles and make changes that address the roadblocks. Railing against the culture may get them a short-term bump in morale, but culture change is systemic. A leader drives positive change through their actions, not simply their words.