Culture: Light or Lightning?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s how Peter Drucker described the power of culture. Arguably, culture is stronger than vision, strategy, tenure, or even in some cases, it can be stronger than leadership.
Culture is a lot like electricity - if harnessed, it can light cities; if untamed, it looks more like lightning, setting wildfires and leaving destruction in its wake.
I’ve noticed in recent years, culture is getting a lot of press – and it is well deserved. Any force of this magnitude should be recognized. Unfortunately, many leaders undervalue it, or assume it will just take care of itself. Back to my lighting analogy for a moment, a forest fire will ultimately burn itself out. The problem is the destruction along the way. Letting culture “take care of itself” is always a bad idea.
Before I share a few thoughts on the topic, let’s start with a working definition:

Culture is the sum of the habits of people within a group.

If these habits are good, that’s good; if these habits are bad, that’s bad.
A few examples:

  • If the majority of people are kind, kindness is part of the culture.
  • If most of the people work long hours, this is part of the culture.
  • If people are negative in their outlook, this is part of the culture as well.
  • If most of the people embrace change, you could accurately call the culture “change-hearty.”
  • If servant leadership is the norm, it is part of the culture.
  • If self-serving leaders are prevalent, unfortunately this is part of the culture, too.
  • If the majority of the people are stuck in the past, so is the culture.

Culture is NOT what we wish to be true – it is what people actually do – the behavioral norms ARE the culture.tweet_bird
What do people do habitually in your organization? Your answer is your culture. The good news: leaders can usually change a culture. It will require energy, focused effort, persistence and fortitude. Be aware: culture is stubborn and doesn’t want to change.
The role of cultural architect is not for the faint-hearted. That’s why it is the purview of leaders. I’ve had a few battles with culture recently; this is nothing new. Every leader should be challenging, shaping and attempting to enhance the culture he or she has been entrusted to steward. What is fresh for me are the lessons re-learned when we fight with culture and lose.
Check back next week and I’ll share some of my current thoughts on this ever-present leadership challenge.[GLS_Shield]


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