The Weave

The Relationship Between Leadership and Culture

Corporate culture can be succinctly defined as: “The way we do things around here.”  Leadership is the act of controlling or directing others.  In biology, symbiosis describes the relationship, (generally advantageous to both parties), between two different organisms living in close proximity to each other.

Can an effective business culture exist without leadership?  No.  Can a leader exist in the absence of culture?  No.  Is each enhanced by the strength of the other?  Yes.  Therefore, within the most successful organizations there exists a symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership.

In the case of a start-up or owner-operated small business, the founder, knowingly or not, creates the culture of the business. The success of that business is directly related to the quality of the culture he or she creates.  Or, said another way, the success of a leader is dependent on the degree to which he or she creates, embraces, and nurtures the company culture.  

More than your product or service, location or strategy, funding or vision, the culture of your business is the most reliable determinant of future success.  Correspondingly, the leader’s passion must be in alignment with the culture of the company, team, or organization he or she is expected to lead.

The authority vested in the leader emanates from their profound commitment to embracing the culture of the organization.  A successful leader will have the following four traits:

  1. Seamless alignment between his or her core values and the culture of the organization.
  2. The courage to innovate and initiate bold action in the face of great risk.
  3. The ability to attract, inspire, and motivate a core group of followers (future leaders) who share the leader’s passion for and commitment to the company culture.
  4. The unwavering commitment to expect and exemplify clarity and accountability.

The culture of a business is the flag all employees, managers, and executives are committed to defend.  Loyalty to the flag is an absolute requirement for employment.  The best leaders create such a powerful “why” around the mission behind the culture, that employees see their work as a heroic journey towards an honorable goal.

Without a clearly defined culture, toward what goal can the leader direct his or her team?  Really, without a flag or coordinates by which to chart a course, what use is there for a leader? Leaders are not attracted to a vacuum.  A powerful “why” will attract powerful leaders. 

My work with leaders begins by examining the relationship between the culture of the company and the core beliefs of the individual.  They must be in alignment, because any conflict observed by the followers will undermine the leader’s ability to lead.

Sometimes, in small to medium sized businesses, the entrepreneur/owner/founder may be particularly skillful in providing the product of service on which the company was founded, but unaware of the critical importance of formulating a coherent company culture.  This is less important when there are only a handful of employees, but as the business grows, the lack of a clearly articulated and universally accepted company culture can be debilitating, and, occasionally, fatal.

A mid-level manager is at a severe disadvantage in the absence of a companywide understanding of and agreement with the cultural foundation of the organization.  When the company culture is ill defined or unclear, there is no “flag” for the team to defend.  No “why” to rally around.
When support and clarity are not forthcoming from above, managers in this position must establish a culture within their team, to create the uniformity of purpose needed to accomplish their assigned mission.  This is an excellent test of leadership skills. It may also serve as a referendum on the viability of the enterprise.