Culture Leadership


Bad for business:

We can learn many things about leadership and culture from the current government shutdown in the US. Here are a few.

Scope, Scale and Stakes: The US, like every other country, is competing on the world markets for influence, capital, ideas, talent, technology…and markets. (Same as any business.) Shutting down your government is clearly bad for business.

Lesson number one: A leadership tactic that shuts down your business is clearly wrong—and a sign of bad leadership. No matter how much you disagree with a decision or policy, it is irresponsible to fight for your point of view at the expense of the whole—in a way that damages your organization (or your country) as a whole.

A small exception to this might be stopping the assembly line to prevent a fatal injury. One can think of many variations of this example; some more complicated. In any case, the situation in the US is not about an urgent & desperate act to prevent fatalities.

A leader’s primary responsibility is to look out for the best long term interests of his or her organization and “never do harm” (borrowing from the Hippocratic Oath).

How would you deal with a situation like this? What would you do if a group of VPs in your business decided to stop shipping orders to customers until you cancelled your new dental plan for front line employees?

You would have to remind them that they missed their chance—a decision has already been made. You might invite them to make their case again—but insist that they respect the current policy until a new (different) decision is made, if ever. Most teams have this fair and reasonable rule: “Once a decision is made, we all support it until someone convinces us to change it.” And finally, if that doesn’t work, you would probably have to fire all those VPs—not just for disrupting your business, but also for trying to blackmail the company. We are not talking about employees who are striking because of unsafe working conditions but leaders who are shutting down your business because they disagree with parts of the employee benefits policy. (I can’t imagine a business that wouldn’t fire these executives immediately—before any talking.)

Leading by example:

A crucial part of leadership is setting a good example, modelling desired behavior, leading the way with your own actions. Employees pay more attention to your actions than your words, so when something is genuinely important, you have to both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk.” That’s how leading by example works—and why it is so important.

What does the shutdown tell us about leading by example: what message does it send; what precedent does it set; what behavior does it legitimize?

  1. Blackmail is an acceptable practice. Our leaders are doing it—it must be OK. And besides, they are getting a lot of attention for it (attention is wildly valued in North American culture) and it seems to be working (they seem to be getting some concessions in return).
  2. Being right and getting your way is more important than being in business, than your colleagues’ jobs, than the capital invested by the shareholders, which of course you are supposed to be protecting and growing.

Once blackmail is on the table as a legitimate practice, even a risky one, it can rear its ugly head in dozens of ways, e.g.,

  • Tantrums when you don’t get your way
  • Sabotage
  • Emotional blackmail—from bullying and intimidation to withdrawal
  • Threats, extortion, blackmail
  • Hostage taking—this already happens in other countries, like France, where employees will take senior managers hostage as part of their negotiations
  • Threats of violence and actual violence
  • Mutiny and revolt

In real life, there is always a risk that your employees will revolt—this is part of the structure of human freedom. We have to earn the trust and respect of our employees every day. But the threat of revolt should never be a normal course business practice—it should never simply be one method of persuasion among others.

How would your business get along if you had this kind of behaviour in your organization? Isn’t it a leader’s responsibility to create a culture in which work processes are productive and functional rather than destructive and dysfunctional? This is a good segue to our final point.

Organizational culture:

A core leadership practice—fundamental to the work of leadership—is to nurture a functional culture, i.e., a culture that is aligned with vision and strategy, drives the strategic agenda forward, supports efficiency and effectiveness, nurtures collaborative practice, and helps people perform at their best—opens possibilities for action and nurtures greatness.

See these past blogs on aligning culture with strategy and managing culture as high-level leadership practice: organizational leadership.

Part of a leader’s job is to ask about the consequences of various work practices on organizational culture, and conversely, the impact of culture on the success of the organization. Let’s follow that thread here.

The blackmail tactics listed above are devastating for business in general and for organizational culture. If you are working in a business (or country) in which it is normal to threaten others, have tantrums, blackmail, etc. (see the list above), your organization will not be sustainable. In a culture like this, you will never get the best out of your employees, and will suffer from:

  • Low trust, morale, and loyalty
  • High stress, fear, insecurity, and suspicion
  • Disorientation, mixed signals, hidden agendas
  • Risk aversion (sitting on the fence), CYA, blame, defensiveness…

All of which lead to:

  • Low effort and motivation
  • Low productivity
  • Careless behavior: errors and accidents
  • High turnover
  • Poor communication and teamwork
  • Less innovation
  • Damage to your reputation and brand

No matter how rich and successful you are, over the long term, these are game killers.


Regardless of whether or not you think there is merit in the Tea Party position, we must also ask about their methods. They shut down the American government, and prior to that voted 40 times to repeal Obamacare in Congress (at a cost of approx. $1.5 million dollars per vote, and opportunity costs that must be many times higher).

First, this is not an acceptable and effective way of running the country—it is bad leadership and a
poor method of affecting change.

Second, it sets a bad example. It sends a terrible message about how to do business and get the job done. And it could have a devastating long term impact on American culture—the culture of the nation as a whole and the political culture in Washington.

What impact are your leadership practices having on your team? What example are you setting, and what kind of culture is that creating?

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