Leadership’s responsibility for organizational culture

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Can organizational cultures be changed? Or, as Mark Petersen tweeted recently, “Shd they just die and start over?” John McAuley responded to Mark saying, “It is possible – made easier by crisis or change in leadership.” This begs the question, “Is it possible for an incumbent leader to change the culture of an organization without a crisis?”

Inability to change culture is a leadership failure

Let me be blunt. I fully agree with John that unfortunately a crisis or new leader is usually what it takes to get culture change, but I think the fact that this is true is a strong indictment of the leadership that was in place prior to the culture change.

It is a leadership failure of the highest magnitude to miss seeing the need for culture change and/or to be unable to lead a team through that change!

Such tragic leadership blunders have undoubtedly caused the premature deaths of some worthy ministries. If we expect leaders to be visionary change agents when it comes to fulfilling the ministry’s mission, why should we expect anything less when it comes to designing the organization which is the vehicle for fullfilling the mission?

  • Isn’t it the leader’s responsibility to create the organization that is best suited to achieving its mission?
  • Isn’t it the leader’s job to identify any obstacles standing in the way of the mission and deal with them?
  • Isn’t it possible that an organization’s culture could itself be an obstacle?
  • Why should we not expect leaders to provide leadership in designing or changing organizational culture just as they do in every other aspect of leadership?

Culture can be changed

Organizational culture is not a given. You do not have to passively accept things the way they are. Organizational culture is an input just as much as people and money are. You need to be as mindful of culture as you are of cashflow and finding and keeping good employees.

The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program (GLOBE) defines culture as shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events. I like this definition because it translates a nebulous concept into specific components that are well understood by everyone.

A leader can shape organizational culture by addressing these components using the following strategies:

  • The Leadership Challenge gives an excellent holistic roadmap to cultural change. As I wrote in my review, it details how a leader models the way, inspires a shared vision, challenges the existing processes, enables other to act, and encourages the hearts of team members. Every one of these practices should lead to the desired culture.
  • Tell stories that reinforce your culture. I’ve already reviewed an excellent book on how to do this, but you can also come to the conference this year and hear Trevor Meier present two workshops that you won’t want to miss: Finding Your Story as an Organization and Building a Fan Base by using your story to engage people online.
  • Make sure that your hiring, performance review, compensation and promotion policies and practices support your desired culture. People should be hired for their fit with your culture and then rewarded for how well they live the culture.
  • Whatever personal motivation people bring to their ministry work, make sure you instill a shared motivation so that team members are all pulling together to achieve exactly the same end result. Talk a lot about why your ministry exists.
  • Continually reinforce the organizational identity. Who are we? What are we about? What makes us, us, and not someone else? Keep telling people what makes your ministry unique.
  • Make sure everyone can connect what they do every day with the fulfillment of the ministry’s mission. I think this is best done by having a clear and compelling logic model. I don’t have one fully fleshed out at CCCC, but the components of it are well-known to staff and are reinforced at every staff meeting in some way. (After we revisit our mission statement we’ll develop a full logic model.)
  • Don’t assume people know what the culture is. Make it explicit by writing it down. Identify your team values, your team aspirations, and so on.

The reason why leaders so often miss the need to make a culture change is that they are themselves part of the organization’s culture, and when you are part of something, it is all too easy to be blinded to it. Is a fish aware of the water around it? Do you think much about the air you move through? Have you ever felt slighted by someone from a different culture? Perhaps you subconsciously expected them to live by your culture and didn’t realize they were living by theirs.

Does your culture need to change?

The solution, if you think your ministry’s culture is just fine, is to check your assumptions by using these strategies:

  • Find out what you don’t know you don’t know by always prowling the edges of what you do know, asking questions and checking your answers for assumptions, then testing those assumptions and finally making judgments about what to do.
  • Seek out the opinions of knowledgeable people who will speak their mind freely.
  • Have a consultant do some staff interviews.
  • Do the Best Christian Workplace survey and let your staff speak out.

As a shepherd-leader, your role is not only to guide your ministry towards mission fulfillment, but to protect it, tend it and nurture it. You have to look inwards just as much as you have to look outwards. And when you ultimately leave the ministry, your successor’s first task should not be to fix the organization, but to step into leadership and simply carry on.


Thoughts on Leadership’s responsibility for organizational culture

  1. Richard Rogers

    Could you please answer this question. How would I comment on the “vehicles” that leaders can use to shape the organisation culture?


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