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Leaders as culture carriers: why the problem… and the solution are within you

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Leaders as culture carriers

“As a leader, a lot of your job is to make people successful,” wrote Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and Alphabet. Nowhere does this principle hold truer than in role-modelling organisational culture. Your team will imitate the values you communicate and reveal. They will work for the values you reward. They will pick up the culture you espouse. And all of this whether you are conscious of it happening or not…

The trouble is that as leaders, we are often unaware of how much we influence the culture around us. Reflecting on our behaviours is most often secondary to completing our daily “to do” list. Let alone thinking of the values and beliefs driving our behaviours… As Peter Senge wrote, “We often spend so much time coping with problems along our path that we only have a dim or even inaccurate view of what’s really important to us.”

While leadership without much reflection may have been an acceptable norm for many years, a changing environment and differing stakeholder expectations now impose a different approach. Working in unpredictable environments requires that leadership be thoughtful and purposeful. Leadership that “gets things done the way they always have been done” is no longer a guarantee of financial success, let alone meeting the environmental, social, and governance expectations of today. Organisations that want to thrive into the future need to foster cultures that support innovation, agility, empathy and inclusivity. And for this to happen, leaders need to understand their own values. There is no other way forward.

Change management starts at our core

“…it is no great feat to write down a list of values. It’s far harder to live by them, especially when they are not self-evidently aligned.” – John Pepper, What Really Matters

Everybody is familiar with the iceberg analogy – only one tenth of the iceberg is visible above the waterline. A similar analogy can be applied to behavioural drivers in each of us. What we do, how we behave, how we express ourselves… these are all visible traits of who we are. And yet, impactful though they undoubtedly are on shaping organisational culture, they are simply symptoms of our values and beliefs. We need to look closely at these to be more purposeful in role-modelling the culture we wish to foster.

Core values and beliefs are mostly acquired in each person’s formative years as a child. They are learnt from figures of authority, including obviously each person’s parents, who will have acquired them in their own formative years. Understanding these values and beliefs, and perhaps even questioning whether they serve us well, requires a willingness to ask ourselves difficult questions. Asking difficult questions about why we behave in certain ways is the first step to cultural change. As Adam Grant writes in Originals, “The starting point is curiosity, pondering why the default exists in the first place.” Why do we react to conflict the way we do? Why do we want to appear in control? Why do we dislike feedback?

Vulnerability changes everything

A leader not being expected to show any vulnerability, the “superhero-model”, is considered a key trait in conventional leadership models. People often associate negative connotations to the word vulnerability, defining being vulnerable as exposing oneself to possible emotional harm. Indeed, the potential consequences of being vulnerable include rejection, ridicule, and various symptoms of undesirable public attention. And yet, as Dr Brene Brown’s writes, vulnerability is “not a weakness but rather our greatest measure of courage”.

The bottom line is that unless we accept some degree of vulnerability in our lives, we will neither be able to be ourselves nor connect closely with other people… both of which are key to effective leadership. Once we ask the uncomfortable questions and share the answers with those around us, we can start to take meaningful steps towards organisational change.

Compare vulnerability-taking to risk-taking… We all have a certain appetite for risk, usually driven by our cultural background, upbringing, and life experience. And most of us will have tried stretching the boundaries of risk at some stage. Now try to do the same with vulnerability… a few steps at a time, the occasional leap forward, the odd couple of steps back. And learning through both positive and challenging outcomes, we can gradually accept more vulnerability in our lives.

Storytelling shifts corporate culture

What stories does your company share to the public? What do you tell your peers? What do you share within your team? Are there any common themes? The stories you tell reveal more than you might think.

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons says all stories are “values in action”. When our success stories never feature elements of failure and learning, we suggest that we do not tolerate mistakes. When we tell stories of heroically working through the night, we risk alienating those who work flexibly or part-time. When we embellish our own achievements, we create a culture of individualism. Yet when we tell stories that reveal vulnerability, when we honour failed experiments, when we recognise risk-taking, we encourage those same qualities in our team. So think of the story you tell, rather than simply telling it.

Getting started

As leaders, corporate culture is on us. We cannot delegate creating the culture we want to others. We need to pause to take time to reflect… to evaluate our true values and whether they conflict with our habits. It’s not easy and we need to feel comfortable asking for help from someone who can hit the pause button and focus us on the wider picture. Get in touch to begin talking through the process. The inner work you do now will affect the culture you foster for years to come.

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