How Much Can Leaders Really Influence Culture?

It seems that everyone recognizes the pivotal role of leaders in setting the culture. Some believe that organizations begin as a reflection of their leaders, but then take on a life of their own as the organization grows and the leader can no longer be involved at every level. They later lament that the culture is diminished and problems surface as a multi-headed hydra that is impossible to slay. Leaders have extraordinary and ongoing opportunity to shape culture. The reality is that as organizations grow and roles differentiate, the role of the founder or CEO must be dedicated more and more to setting and constantly reinforcing culture. Here are a few ways that leaders can maintain their core culture over time.

Build a Foundation of Intentional Leadership

Great leaders understand the importance of clearly defining and living out the organization’s values. They know that these values serve as guiding principles, and that it’s the extent to which these values translate to actual behaviors and decisions that matters most. They are intentional about naming and modeling specific actions that emulate the values. By setting a strong example and consistently demonstrating these values in their own actions, leaders create a culture that is unwavering in its alignment to the values of the organization.

Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Effective leadership goes beyond setting values. The best leaders create space for the inclusion of diverse experiences, views, and ideas. Great leaders recognize that diverse perspectives lead to innovation and growth. They foster an environment where individuals feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work, knowing that their unique perspectives will be valued and respected. By embracing diversity and inclusion, leaders build teams where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Forge Real Human Relationships

At the heart of effective teams are real human relationships. Great leaders understand the critical value of helping people forge these relationships. They create opportunities for team members to connect on a personal level, fostering a sense of camaraderie and trust. Through these relationships, teams are able to navigate the inevitable tensions and conflicts that arise within the natural flow of work.

Navigate Tensions and Polarities

Leadership involves navigating tensions and polarities within the organization. Effective leaders recognize that some polarities may need to win out over others in different situations. They understand the importance of finding a balance between opposing forces and making strategic choices that align with the organization’s goals. They surface and normalize tensions. By openly encouraging dialogue about these tensions, leaders create an environment where teams can effectively navigate these complexities, together.

Establish Psychological Safety

To foster a healthy and effective team, leaders must also continuously reinforce what Clark described as “challenger” level psychological safety. They create an environment where individuals feel safe to offer their true opinions without fear of reprisal, take calculated risks, and openly debate their superiors. By graciously accepting feedback and actively seeking input from team members, leaders set an example for the rest of the organization. They demonstrate that psychological safety is not only encouraged but valued as a means to drive growth and improvement.

Both Intention and Attention

Organizational cultures are a reflection not just of leaders, but of intentional leadership. By focusing on clearly defining and living out values, great leaders cultivate cultures that align with the goals of the leader and the organization. They balance between unwavering culture and inclusion as a driver of innovation. Leaders who embrace purposeful culture building will not only shape the culture of the organization but also pave the way for long-term success.