Culture Leadership


My last blog discussed culture versus cult, and outlined some of the signs and costs of arrogance and dogmatism in organizational culture.

To recall a couple of the themes: Language and enlightenment are journeys and not destinations (not final, fixed resting places). We should therefore strive to be:

  • open and curious rather than closed and dogmatic;
  • thirsty for wisdom rather than over-confidently gorged on our own knowledge;
  • grateful for feedback rather than dismissive and arrogant;
  • generous in helping others rather than belittling, stingy, or arrogant.

Let’s continue our discussion with a more practical look at leading, teamwork, and culture. 

A good and strong leader:

Here is a short response to dogmatic & arrogant leaders: “Hey, listen up. From time to time, you might be wrong; the language you reject might be even better than yours; and that person you are dismissing might be even more enlightened than you are—or just as enlightened as you are, but differently—or at least have an important story to tell and a few unique gifts to offer.”

I have very strong feelings about this. A good and strong leader is someone who does not belittle people for not knowing, but rather tends to their development—and seeks to learn in the process.

“If we think the people not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion” (Thomas Jefferson).

At the end of the day, your life will be far more interesting, you will connect with people far better, and create a much more loyal following, if you assume that everyone you meet has a story to tell, brings some gift to the table, and might even be able to teach you something. Even the near sociopath Steve Jobs, who treated people like crap and stole their ideas made his team part of the solution, surrounded himself with talent, and invested in leadership development.

If you think your employees are stupid (yes, I have heard executives make this complaint), don’t treat them poorly. Train them. Teach them to be smart. That’s your job. If that fails, then replace them and make sure the second lot are properly trained and coached. If you have to do it twice then you can blame yourself with near certainty.

Maybe keep these things in mind. You are accountable for the quality of talent on your team. Turnover is extremely expensive. Hiring and training are only two of many core talent management practices. Fear, humiliation, and domination are not great motivators—they don’t bring out the best in people. And if you are an asshole, but the smartest person in the world, you are still an asshole.

What I say about teams (below) applies equally to leaders (as individuals).

A good and strong (sustainable) team:

Teams and organizations need to have a strong internal and external focus:

  1. Teams need to focus inward in order to assess and improve internal communication, teamwork, collaborative practices, team processes, efficiency, and so on.
  2. Teams also need to have a strong external focus in order to stay connected with the outside world and the stakeholders they serve. A strong external focus is absolutely crucial in keeping strong cultures balanced, and ensuring your cult-like culture does not turn into a dysfunctional cult. An outward focus helps maintain a team’s relevance, speed, flexibility, adaptability, and sustainability, i.e., the capacity for renewal and long term, sustainable success.

A tight team with a strong external focus is a powerful, sustainable force.

Four drivers of an authentic, sustainable culture:

I teach my clients how to use these drivers to enhance speed, flexibility, and capacity for renewal for sustainable success—at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

Just for the sake of clarity, the term sustainability here does not refer to environmental sustainability but long term viability, competitiveness, and survival; the greatest amount of success over the longest possible period of time; maximizing speed, flexibility, and capacity for renewal.

Four drivers of sustainability:

Ambitious goals: Sufficiently (and appropriately) ambitious goals; driving for results and driving for improvement; being more motivated and driven than your competitors. This helps fight complacency and affirms change / growth / transformation / development and possibility.

Balanced portfolio of goals: (i) Balancing the needs of your key stakeholder groups;
(ii) managing a balanced set of drivers of future performance; and (iii) balancing short & long term needs by investing in both short term results and long terms success. Balance helps you avoid becoming too lopsided—blinded by a single perspective, your ego, or temporary swings in the pendulum.

Note: Regarding the second item here, my balanced scorecard for supervision is “performance, skills, and values.” All employees should have ambitious goals for performance improvement, skill improvement, and taking the core values up to the next level (not all at once, of course). Performance, skills, and values form a solid, robust, well-rounded, sustainable agenda for employee action. I will write on this topic on another occasion.

Outward focus: Keeping an outward focus on the world (clients, markets, technology) and on stakeholder needs & expectations; hardwiring the voices of your key stakeholder groups. This driver helps you combat turf wars, navel gazing, and group think, and affirms the importance of others—our being in the world with others.

Drive to learn: Strong drive at all levels to learn from experience—both successes and failures—and ensure that we are not standing still or merely relying on past successes. “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you” (Aldous Huxley). This driver helps you avoid falling into the comfortable traps of merely going through the motions (coasting, auto-pilot), and over-relying on habit, hunches, status quo, and orders (as in “yes men” who are “just following orders”). This driver can take many forms: building the habit of critical reflection; continuous improvement programs; entrepreneurial ventures and experiments (rolling the dice); building a learning organization; and so on. At a minimum, this driver involves regular and rigorous debriefings to validate your ideas and efforts. Lots of choices. Figure which is best for you—and do it.


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