In thinking about the area of strategic leadership, it’s important to understand that being strategic about your organizational culture is as important as being strategic about marketing, the product or the service your company provides. Executing on your strategic plans is primarily a product of the company culture. To use my friend Jim Eaton’s language from Kingdom Partner Solutions, “execution must become a cultural competency”. Giving proper attention to the company culture is a key responsibility of the primary leaders if you want to see long-term sustainable growth and a healthy work environment.
I have observed over my years in organizational leadership that great leaders are great “cultural architects”. This is true in any leadership role, from parenting to leading a multi-million-dollar company. Being strategic and intentional about the culture of whatever you are called to lead is fundamental in achieving positive and lasting results.
It might be helpful to define what I mean by your company’s culture. The dictionary definition of culture is, “relating to the habits, traditions and beliefs of a society”. It is the accepted norm of a group of people in a given time. For our purposes, I would define culture as “the perceptual filter that determines your actions, responses and outlook within a given, defined community (business, family, church or a nation)”.
Over the years I have come to see that there are laws or principles that apply to the development of culture (I have distilled these laws from multiple sources over the years but would have difficulty crediting anyone in particular for the wording). These laws apply positively or negatively depending on the how they are responded to. In and of themselves they are not good, or bad, they just are. But, understanding these laws will help any leader to be more aware of how they can be strategic in creating an effective and inspiring organizational culture.
The four laws of culture are:
If you don’t have a culture by design, you will have culture by default
We all understand the idea of default settings on a computer. They are the settings determined by the manufacturer based on some basic standard of functioning. An operational culture that is determined by default is the low watermark created by a combination of circumstances, inside and outside influences and unfortunately the lower instincts of imperfect people. By contrast, when leaders invest time and resources to carefully design a culture, it can have powerful results. Not just in the performance of the business, but also in the lives of the team members. Being strategic and learning the skills and disciplines of a cultural architect is the heartbeat of leaders with an others-centered worldview. Jesus is our greatest example of a cultural architect, we are all still being influenced by the culture that he designed over 2,000 years ago.
Whoever creates the culture rules the house
This is a simple principle. Whoever is setting and establishing the cultural norms for an organization has the control. Sometimes they are legitimate authorities, and sometimes they are illegitimate authorities. When the CEO abdicates their role of intentionally establishing cultural norms and priorities, the void will be filled by someone else. That someone may not represent the values of the organization, they may just be the most dominant personality on the team. We can probably all think of that one person on a leadership team or in an office setting that causes everyone else to walk on eggshells. Left unchecked, the organization begins to form around this person and they gain more and more control over the working environment. Life-giving cultures established by legitimate authority can have powerful results and ultimately increase productivity, reduce stress and eliminate conflict.
What a culture SOWS, a culture grows
We reap what we sow, we all know this principle from scripture and we have likely seen it in action in many places. This principle applies universally; if we sow mistrust, we reap mistrust; if we sow fear, we reap fear. If you sow a command and control environment as a leader, you will grow a command and control ethos in the very fabric of your organizational culture. The question to ask ourselves is, what is our culture growing? Not only will you grow what you sow, but you will also attract what you sow. Strong organizational cultures tend to attract like-minded people and repel people who don’t carry the same values. It’s almost self-purging.
You can only change the culture by participating in the culture
Strategically creating your organizational culture can’t be done through policies and procedures alone. Values need to be demonstrated, practices need to be observed by the team. Absentee landlords have very little influence. The most effective vehicle for creating culture is when the primary leader is front and center demonstrating that they genuinely aspire to practice what they preach. This closes the gap between formal and informal culture. This is an imperfect science, but the closer the operational norms (informal culture) are aligned with the stated values (formal culture), the higher the degree of cultural integrity. Cultural integrity is a valuable asset that money can’t buy.
I would encourage you to consider how these cultural laws are playing out in your organization. I would also encourage you to reread the gospels through the lens of these laws and see how masterfully Jesus designed kingdom culture, effectively lead it, grew others through it and demonstrated it in every action. It’s a fascinating and life-changing study.
If you want to learn more about integrating your faith with your work, or how to use your business to grow the Kingdom, consider joining a Convene Peer-Advisory Group.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Reflecting on the past 35 years, Bruce has had the privilege of serving in an eclectic group of initiatives that have provided a broad range of experience in the for-profit, non-profit and congregational ministry arenas. Bruce currently serves as a Convene Chair in Toronto, Canada.