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Difficult but possible: How to turn leadership culture around


Something does not match up; something does not line up. Companies espouse a leadership culture and values, and yet we seldom experience company leadership aligning with these values. The stated leadership values do not match the existing leadership behaviours. Why is this? And how can this alignment be achieved, if at all? ​

We understand from research and our own personal experience that each of us holds many personal identities, depending on our context. We also align with many different social identities when we join groups or organisations with which we feel an allegiance, such as companies, social groups, circles of friends, sports teams, and religious communities. Within these identities, we align with the norms, practices and cultures of the particular groups, and so we assert our personal identities, values and preferences in different ways.  

Working identities are constantly moving pieces of a puzzle and they too change over our different life stages. Our working identities are constant works in progress, as we shift through different roles and leadership levels of a company – moving from managing self, to managing teams, to leading divisions or departments. Each time we need to come to terms with our new roles, values and responsibilities, and in due course become comfortable with how we fit into these new identities.   

It helps if we personally can relate to this, as we realise that we are constantly in liminality – at a threshold betwixt and between identities – and that our identity is never fixed or static. We are not chasing one elusive authentic self, so that when we finally reach that state we can sigh a huge sigh of relief and believe we have reached our destination. The more we can embrace our constantly evolving personal change, the more we can embrace the constantly shifting change in our companies and the world today. The changing status is then less threatening and it becomes easier to experiment and try different roles. This is the first capacity we could inculcate in our leaders – an awareness of their own capacity to see and embrace their own internal changes, battles and challenges to help them step up as leaders of change. Then we can better understand our environment and how to begin to change things across our companies.  

Thus, just as our personal identities are constantly evolving, so does the company leadership culture shift – as people change, as circumstances change, and as different pressures are brought to bear on the future direction of the company. We need to be alert to our own changes, and we need to be alert to the actual leadership changes in our businesses. And if we find that personal and organisational leadership culture is shifting, it is easier to understand why our interventions often fail to achieve the impact we desire. We are working with a ‘moving target’, so a traditional linear plan will not work.

Leadership culture is like a jelly mould that is a fixed shape, and even if the matter is translucent we often don’t realise how strong the hold is. When we try to change it by prodding a finger into one side of it, it will always wobble back into shape. The leadership culture is greater than the individual leader. A leadership culture is informed by the senior executives, by the systems evolved over time, by the successes and failures, and by the different power dynamics of the time. So how do we change it, if at all?  

The first step is to understand clearly what the existing predominant and influential leadership culture is. That is, we should look at it not how we want to see it, but as it is, warts and all. We should understand why that leadership culture is in place, how it works and what purpose it serves. We should see it from multiple perspectives first, then we can exercise our choices as to where to intervene, or not.

The entrenched leadership culture cannot simply be weeded out, nor will it simply disappear as you replace leaders. Therefore, we should then consider how these very characteristics can be reframed into positive effects. We need to have an overarching and shared perspective of the existing leadership culture: we should evaluate what is working, what is not working, what is emerging and what is desired. We could even run some scenarios of what might evolve in different leadership culture trajectories. Thereafter we can focus on nurturing those existing behaviours and cultural norms that are working and support those struggling to emerge. 

We should foster the emerging trends and leadership in line with our chosen or preferred future. We do this in our lives, too, by reinforcing the habits and practices we want to take with us into our futures. Our futures start now, and our interventions need to be iterative and emergent themselves. Start implementing today – this is how change is achieved. By starting to be the change we want today, it will become the new way, the new norm. Start in the small interactions, and these will grow into larger ones. 

The second step is to understand all the systems which reinforce leadership behaviour and culture. Start with the holistic view of the change. Then ask the tough question: Can the leadership culture change? What will it take to change? Are we willing or even prepared to put in what it takes to change? Is the company willing to live with the consequences? Then when we do coach and develop individual leaders there is a framework to support the changes. And, of course, individual leaders have agency and will influence these changing structures as well. Do these things simultaneously, and craft the company interventions as part of the leadership development and coaching programmes. 

Re-craft the leadership vision so that leadership change is firmly addressed. It will not work otherwise. Facing up to this reality early on can save a lot of heartache down the road. As long as we are aware of what is really going on, we have choices we can make about what changes we choose to take on. 

Many companies do have a holistic perspective of change in mind, but what is often missing is the alignment and integration. The interventions are often delegated to different teams in human resources, the C-suite, and learning and development, and somehow the overall messages and intent are lost. Keep an eye on the overall goal and be open to changing routes along the way. Keep in touch with the leaders involved.  Individuals are not blank slates waiting to be worked on, but will themselves interact, shift, adopt or reject that which comes their way. Find the stories and changes that are bringing the changes you want and ride those waves. We should work with those areas that work with us. And most of all, we have to be the leader we desire to see across the organisation. 

Credit: This amended article was originally published in ASTD’s newsletter Talking Talent in February 2016.


Sarah Babb.jpg
Sarah Babb is an advisory board member of ASTD and her areas of expertise include leadership in transition, leading in complex times, personal leadership, women in leadership, the emergence of new leadership and leading into the future. She is a faculty member at USB Executive Development.


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