Culture Is The Leader’s Job

Politics.  Gossip.  Back stabbing.  Whining.  Distrust. Selfishness.  Bad Attitudes.  Work environments characterized by one or more of these traits are miserable places to work.

I often run into leaders that know they are leading teams that have these issues.  Unfortunately some of these leaders fail to realize that the cultures of their teams are the results of their leadership.  Or more accurately, their lack of leadership.

Letting Culture Happen

Every organization develops it’s own unique culture.  It is inevitable.  A leader has a choice to let culture just happen or to intentionally influence the culture the leader wants to create.

The thermodynamic term entropy states that a system left to itself tends to breakdown.  Whether establishing a new team or leading an established team, if attention is not given to the culture of that team, it will soon begin to breakdown.

Too many leaders focus on everything but culture.  Problems like performance counseling, mediating issues among teammates, and solving problems way below their level can consume a leader’s focus.

The ironic thing is with a strong culture a lot of the issues these leaders deal with will diminish.

3 Ways To Make Culture Happen

Leaders.  Make it happen!  Don’t let culture happen without you controlling it.  The leader can control the atmosphere and the character of the organization.  But, it must be intentional and consistent.

1.  The Right Values

Are your values valuable?  Do they mean anything to your people or are they just words on a poster or website.

I am not a big fan of the word culture anymore.  It has become watered down to include casual Fridays and other perks at work.  I like the term organization character.

Organizational character describes a team’s demonstrated values.  How a team acts on a habitual basis – towards each other and towards it’s customers.  That is a team’s character.

Words like Integrity, Courage and Character are rarely defined in an organization’s value statements.  Therefore, people interpret them differently in similar situations.

Here is one company’s description of what integrity looks like in practice:

Integrity In Practice at Acme Inc.:

  • We will keep our promises to our customers and to each other.
  • We will speak with candor and in a straightforward manner.
  • We will be responsible for our actions and the actions of others on our team.
  • We will always challenge a potential integrity issue.
  • We will determine what the right thing to do is and do it, no matter our circumstances.

2.  The Right Communication

The leader must communicate what good looks like.  When people are faced with a challenge to their integrity, how will they respond?

Case studies that challenge our ideas about Integrity prepare us for when temptations come.   Example:

“Your boss closes the door to your office and tells you to change the date on a big purchase by one day in order to get it on the previous month’s budget.  You know it will help last month’s sales, but it will also put the team behind in the new month.  What should you do?”

Leadership and values discussions can happen at the start of each meeting.  One case study with some good probing questions will only take 15 minutes. But it will go a long way towards establishing and reinforcing what the leader believes is important.

Without these discussions, values tend to be theoretical not practical.  Case studies and reading articles, blogs or chapters in books will allow people to prepare for the challenges to come.

As a leader, it is my responsibility to prepare my people for those challenges.  If someone has never discussed or even thought about what they might do when they are challenged at work, I am gambling that they will do the right thing at the moment of truth.

Here is a link to a previous post that may help: Building Leaders With A Blog

3.  The Right People

I was recently in a meeting with a client who asked me what they should do about a talented yet caustic employee.  My answer:  “It depends on how much you value your culture.”  This company has a great culture, but one poisonous apple.

Talent does not trump character.  If I allow someone’s talent to outweigh their character, I am giving up control of the culture of my team.

We have all been there.  That one person who bullies, complains, or lacks work ethic can bring down everyone around them.

As a leader I must realize that talented people are not hard to find.  People of character are. 

The Bottom Line:

If I lead a team, I am responsible for its culture.  Even if the larger organization is dysfunctional and does not demonstrate the values it claims, I can still influence the culture of the team I am responsible for.

Having the right values, communicating them consistently and having the right people on the team are all in my control, no matter what level leader I may be.

Leaders!  Don’t let culture just happen!  Take control of what you can control and make culture happen.  If you do, your people will thank you. 

They will thank you for creating an environment where politics, gossip, back stabbing, whining, distrust, selfishness, and bad attitudes are not tolerated.  It will be a place they love to come to work and a team you love to lead.  It is in your control!


What was the best team you ever worked on?  What did that leader do to create that culture?

6 Responses to “Culture Is The Leader’s Job”

  1. Fred Allison February 19, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Everyone is responsible for the culture, from the CEO to the delivery driver! Even the lowest person on the ladder can have a positive affect on the culture of the office, Each of us is responsible for the the attitude and professionalism we bring to our work place, Be an example of what is right, It will go a long way in improving the culture of your office.

    • Dave Anderson February 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

      Absolutely! We all have a hand in the of our workplace. The leader is ultimately responsible for shaping it.

      • Candace Cockerham April 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

        Everyone is responsible for developing a company’s culture, but a group’s efforts can’t trump a leader’s influence due partly to the heirarchial structure inherent in most organizations. One way a leader shapes the culture is by setting an example. If a leader desires a culture of respect, positivity and eagerness to work and that leader arrives late every day, discourages innovative ideas and dampens eagerness with apathy, it shows a lack of respect to his employees and reduces motivation regardless of the culture shaping efforts of the employees. A “leader” in title only who personally fails to meet the expectations set for the group is not a true leader…just a person with a title.

        • Dave Anderson April 16, 2014 at 8:49 am #

          I agree. Everyone has a role in determining the culture of the organization. But the leader is ultimately responsible.

          If the leader’s actions don’t fall in line with the values the leader claims, then it is unlikely the rest of the team will uphold those values either.

  2. Tommy Crenshaw December 23, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Dave, excellent thoughts. You may enjoy Josh McDowell’s book, “Beyond Belief to Convictions.”

  3. Jeff Blaser June 16, 2016 at 8:56 am #

    I have been following your leadership solutions website for a little over a year now. I came upon it while doing a search of leadership in an educational leadership course I was taking through the university. As an assistant principal in a large (2,400 students) high school, we are always modeling and projecting what good leadership is.

    In your recent article “Culture Is The Leader’s Job”, I was thinking about how the techniques and characteristics of what makes great leadership transcends the makeup of any organization and work the same benefits from the world of private business to public education. I have noticed that the public education system tends to work itself so hard for the benefit of others and receives very little thanks or praise. In this reality, maintaining a positive culture and keeping it in the forefront of the list of things for a leader to do seems to fall to the back of our leadership priorities by the end of a school year.

    I appreciate the list of 3 ways to make culture happen. These are things I need to be reminded of and to practice every week. I especially like the reference in #2 about prompting a discussion. Your idea of building leaders with a blog is very insightful and doable in educational leadership – something I am going to implement beginning with this post.

    Thank you,

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