Culture Shapers: How Leaders Define the Way Organizations Think, Speak and Act

Leaders both shape and define culture.

Leaders define culture by what they do, and shape culture by what they allow.

Therefore, every leader need to pay attention to in two distinct directions when setting and shaping culture:

1.      What are you saying and doing personally? What words do you use? What actions do you take? All of these are defining your culture.  

2.      What do you allow those in your organization to say and do? What behaviors do you tolerate? Which behaviors do you reward? The answers to these questions are shaping your culture.

The intersection of leading by example and maintaining strong accountability is what gives rise to and maintains strong culture.

Have you been a part of an organization with a great culture?

If not, I am sure you know someone who has, because when we are a part of a great culture, we tend to talk about it. The positive energy, creativity, and commitment generated within strong, successful cultures is contagious. There is a North Star inside the organization: a collective focus, a common pace, and a set of shared values that drive how people perform their work.

Have you been in an organization where the leader is striving to set a new culture, but some (or all!) of the people inside the organization are resisting that new culture?

This can be a terrible tale or a success story. A good leader can become frustrated and fail in the face of a powerful culture that wants to retain its norms. Leaders can mis-calculate when attempting to set or re-set culture, and lose the support of key stakeholders. And leaders can listen well, persevere through the tumult of change to navigate a team successfully through to a new, vibrant shared culture.

Sometimes cultures have trouble arising at all. I find that frequently this is because of either an absence of passion or the presence of fear, which leads to my final question:

Have you been in organizations where the leader is shaping a culture of fear?

What happens, typically, is this:  the leader’s positional power trumps the efforts of the rest of the organizational leaders to build a collaborative culture. Until sufficient collective courage is mustered to address the fear tactics with the leader, the leader’s culture of fear will prevail. Only when there is collective courage to name and attempt to co-create a new culture with the leader will the culture of fear dissipate. Most organizations tend not to be able to gather the collective energy to bring this type of request to the leader, so fear, and its limits on creativity and innovation, prevail during their tenure.

I find leaders who excel in shaping culture share some common skills:

1.      They listen. They are aware of the current reality of the organization, and then think about how to respond effectively to that reality.

2.      They know and show who they are. Their value system shows up in how they speak, act and organize their work and the organization’s work.  They infuse their work with that value system. It is who they are.

3.      They shape and communicate the values and culture of the organization. The demonstrate and co-create the culture by striving to equip every level of the organization to live the culture.

4.      These leaders help people learn how to be culture shapers, and hold others (and themselves) accountable for what they say and how they act.

5.      They course correct daily and publicly. They expect themselves and others to miss the mark, and have a process by which they renew their commitment to the shared organizational culture. They are willing to share their own learning and growth as they wrestle to bring their best selves to the table.

Culture hums when the leader and the organizations culture match.

·        Are you aware of the culture you are setting with your words and actions?

·        If you asked your direct reports what your organization’s culture is, could they tell you,               and show you evidence of that culture in both your behavior and theirs?

Leaders, we define culture by what we do, and we shape culture by what we allow.

Be curious about the impact of your words and actions today. Notice what kind of affect you are having on the organization and team you lead. And at the end of the day, do you like what you find?


Every organization has a culture, which either works for them or against them.  Sounds obvious, right?  This being the case, why do so many organizations ignore their culture’s impact on their long term results?

One school of thought is that today’s economics don’t support the “warm and fuzzy” Dr. Phil type of cultural “therapy.”  Some employees have become so shrill in guarding their incomes over the last 8-10 years that they are willing to accept doing more with less, working longer hours, and sub-standard leadership.

Organizations that are seduced into accepting this are deceiving themselves.  The proof will come when our cyclical economy creates better jobs, at which point they will pay the price in turnover for ignoring their culture.  There is an old business saying that states, “Culture beats strategy every time.”  In the long term, I believe that to be absolutely true.

The goal of the Game is to change from Anti-Culture to Shared Culture.

Anti-Culture sounds like this:

“It’s Monday, how are you doing today?”
“Well, I’m hanging in there”,
“It’s almost Friday”, or the sarcastic
“I’m living the dream!”

In our experience, this is symptomatic of the short term “Action to Results /Command & Control” management style outlined by Roger Connors and Tom Smith in Change the Culture Change the Game (see top half of the pyramid below.)  In this model, staff experiences “You’d better do this [Action] now because we need this [Result] now.  At times it is obviously appropriate.  Other times, it is less than effective when it becomes perceived as the normal Cultural Operating System.

A game changing Shared Culture foundationally looks like this:

·       What a Team Member Experiences over time drives their Beliefs.

·       Their Beliefs about their organization drives their Actions.

These Actions may or may not fulfill leaderships’ targeted Results.



What would Anti-Culture employees need to experience to change to a Shared Culture environment? 

It’s all about the Shared Experiences:

·       What is it like to report to you?

·       What is it like to report to your boss?

·       What is it like to work inside the walls of your organization?

Leaders who understand this challenge the conventional by demonstrating, over time, behaviors that create Shared Experiences with their employees.  For example, as an employee:

·       Am I heard at work?

·       Do we make joint decisions?

·       Is management fair?

·       Are rationales offered for the strategy and tactics employed?

Furthermore, as Connor and Smith point out, it only takes 3-4 shared cultural experiences among staff to form a new cultural belief.  When a new hire asks, ”What is it really like to work here?”, what do they hear in reply?  The honest answers to that question could have great strategic impact on long term results as Culture beats Strategy every time.


The first step in getting noticed is often overlooked by professionals who should know better.

That step is to follow a successful pattern that has worked for countless others in the past:

A – I – C – D – E/C

These letters stand for:

         1.     Attention                       

Can I get your undivided attention?

Do I have your undivided attention?

     2.   Interest

Once I do, are you interested at all in what I have to say?

     3.   Conviction                     

Your attention fuels my passion to contribute in a meaningful way.

     4.    Desire                             

 Your attention energizes my sense of impact and ownership.

5.  Engage/Commit          

The expression of my passions and ownership engages me in real ways.

Many have modified this pattern over the years.  Some have flipped steps three and four while others have changed the wording slightly. For our purposes of discussing the facilitation of cultural change, I will also change the wording slightly of the final step five from “Close” to “Engagement and Commitment”

In cultural change efforts, the momentum of the legacy (incumbent) culture can be very difficult to overcome.  The organizational physics of change dictates that resistance must be overcome by facilitating current flow over channels (media) that can accommodate the increased voltage.

 In short, the litany of resistance includes:

·       “That’s not my job.”

·       “We don’t do things that way around here.”

·       “We tried that before and it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”

·       “Nobody seems to care, so why should I?”

·       “Nobody really knows what I do here.  They just keep piling on more.”

·       “We get mixed messages and are forced to take action and hope we are right.”

 If you want to obtain buy-in for change efforts, you will need to get the attention of the rank and file workforce.  Who carries that message?  Usually, it’s the Managers who do.  They need to become the new medium or channel by which the new energy flows.  How will you genuinely get their attention?

The answer is by applying integrity to leadership and not corporate glad-handing.

You pay the price of admission by:

acknowledging what is,

making the changes that are actionable, and

communicating the rationale for those that are not.

If you want to obtain buy-in for change efforts, you will need to get the attention of the leadership.  Are you able to get their attention? Are they so busy with the crisis of the day that you cannot be heard? Very often the answers to many dilemmas that seem to have no end in sight rests with paying attention to and diving deeper into the Management ranks. The answers are there.  Are you being heard?  If not, why not?