Whether deliberately or unintentionally, each company, organization or church possesses a distinctive culture. For example, Nordstrom prides itself on its signature customer service. It is no accident, therefore, when a smiling Nordstrom salesperson steps from behind the counter to hand a customer the item, which he or she has purchased. Such personal attentiveness reflects the defining culture of this upscale department store. The defining culture of Southwest Airlines is that it sees itself as being a “family.” This vision does not only apply to how it treats its employees, but also its passengers. Thus, Southwest does not charge baggage fees because its passengers are also viewed as being a part of the “family.”
Defining and developing a distinctive corporate culture requires proactive purpose. It is here the role of a leader is crucial because he or she is the cultural leader. This does not mean that being the cultural leader simply requires the mandating and maintaining of training programs and structures designed to instill within employees the vision, values, objectives of the corporation, organization or church. Providing training manuals, viewing motivational videos and even demanding all employees and team members participate in an obligatory three-month orientation program certainly might help. But, as cultural leader, it is the leader who must directly be responsible for modeling the organization’s culture.
In his article, “Key Leadership Challenges for Present and Future Executives,” William C. Steers, chairman of the Board and CEO of Pfizer Inc, writes that a critical step in leadership is to recognize that organizational culture is a pressing business issue. He argues, “Shaping it is a principal senior leadership responsibility.” It cannot be delegated to human resources or some other department. Senior leaders are both the architects and the general contractors. Steere contends, “They should be judged not only by the elegance of their plans, but also the quality of implementation and maintenance of the design.”
According to Steere, there are several key elements of organizational culture:
- Identifying and communicating the core values and principles that guide organizational behavior and decision making
- Specifying behaviors that exemplify the company’s values or principles (and, by inference, those that do not) and leading by example
- Developing a method by which individuals can receive feedback on their performance in both business-finance and behavioral terms
- Ensuring that the rewards or reinforcement systems are consistent with organizational values and principles, recognize and promote desirable behaviors, and punish undesirable behaviors
- Personally assuming the responsibility of championing the desired culture and recognizing the need for redundancy and reinforcement concerning what is expected and what is negotiable.
Being a cultural leader requires consistent attention and focus. At the same time, there is the need to recognize that there will always be a creative tension within an organization, group or church congregation. Such tension should not be regarded negatively since all dynamic, creative, vital and healthy groups are marked by positive tension. It is this realization that requires a cultural leader to give a high priority to nurturing positive, open and transparent relationships. Fostering such relationships through the use of language, listening skills, the propagation of values and clarification of core values are all keys to building community, respect and dignity. Harvard Business School professor, James L. Heskett insightfully states “Relational power is a term that might be added to the lexicon of all cultural leaders.”
Being a company’s cultural leader cannot be done at a distance. This is especially the case within our increasingly complex technological society with its often impersonal and removed ways of communicating. Certainly, video conferencing and other means of connecting are often economically and logistically desirable, but to overlook or downplay the formative value of face-to-face networking can undermine the qualitative nurturing and shaping of a corporate culture. A defining quality of the leadership of Abraham Lincoln was his belief and practice of visiting his troops in the field. A leadership axiom states, “It is good to see and to be seen.” Writes James O’Toole, “Respect for followers is made manifest by listening to them, faithfully representing them, pursing their noblest aspirations, keeping promises made to them, and never doing harm to them or their cause.” There is no substitute for personal leadership presence.
This is especially true when it comes to being an effective cultural leader. Taking time to build relationships of trust signifies respect and the honoring of personal dignity. One of the best illustrations of how this is done is revealed in the cultural leadership style of Michael J. Roberts, former President and Chief Operating Officer of McDonald’s Corporation. In what Roberts calls the process of “Noodle Teams,” he made it his practice personally to meet four times a year over a three-day period with employees around the region or world, suppliers, owner operators and external experts for “gloves-off” feedback sessions. These provided Roberts with unfiltered ground-level operational and relational information. Roberts listened, took notes, probed, asked questions, sought clarification and was never defensive as he heard the stories from those working on the front lines of the day-to-day operations of the organization. Such face-to-face sessions enabled Roberts not only to gain direct empirical operational data and insight as to where improvements might be made but also helped to build a corporate culture of candor and trust.
Being an effective cultural leader demands being available, authentic, transparent, vulnerable, consistent and credible. This does not imply a requirement of being perfect. Quite the contrary. As even the Bible reminds us, no leader is perfect. In fact, one of the most potent leadership teaching tools is to communicate the fact that despite possessing strong core values and a clear vision, even the most competent and revered cultural leaders remain fallible, err, fall short and are in need of understanding, empathy, forgiveness and grace. It was the nineteenth century celebrated Episcopalian pulpit prince of Trinity Church, Boston, Phillips Brooks, who often spoke of “truth through personality.” As a cultural leader, perhaps, this is a key insight as a marker for effectiveness. For every effective leader continues to learn, to grow and mature. Seeming setbacks and failures are to be put under the category of “lessons learned.”
There is a late nineteenth century painting by James Ensor entitled, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. Obviously based upon the Palm Sunday entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the painting depicts a pressing , jostling crowd crushing upon each other. There are flags, banners, a vast variety of faces, including many in this almost unruly mob wearing black, white and colorful masks. To the right in the painting are some spectators peering down upon the scene from on a high platform. They are frantically trying to identify the center of celebration, Jesus. But, Jesus is difficult to see. A similar frustration confronts the viewer of the painting. He is nowhere to be seen! Finally, after endless searching Jesus can be identified. The question the viewer of the painting asks, “If Jesus is the leader of this would-be political and spiritual revolution, where is he? If he is the leader why isn’t out-front and easily recognized?” But, here is the clue. As the cultural leader of this movement, his leadership was not authenticated by position, power and prestige but by the moral influence of his character and person. Those who embrace his cause were magnetically drawn by his humility, sensitivity, his awareness of their humanity and the challenges they confronted within their lives. His cultural leadership was that of a servant leader.
In the book, Compassion: a Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen writes:
When we give up our desires to be outstanding or different, when we let go of our needs to have our own special niches in life, when our main concern is to be the same, and to live out this sameness in solidarity, we are then able to see each other’s unique gifts. Gathered together in common vulnerability, we discover how much we have to give to each other …. It belongs to the essence of this new togetherness that our unique talents are no longer objects of competition but elements of community, no longer qualities that divide but gifts that unite.
Frances Hesselbein et al., The Leader of the Future, Jossey Bass. 1996.
Essay by William C. Steer, Jr., “Key Leadership Challenges for Present and Future Executives.”
James O’Toole, Leading Change, Jossey Bass, 1995.
Ron Carucci, “Bridging the Leadership Divide,” Journal of Leadership Studies, Vo. 5, No. 3, pp. 65-73.