Saturday, March 24, 2018

Culture from the bottom up

Almost everything written about leadership includes this idea: that leaders have the responsibility to set the cultural values of the organization and ensure such values are deployed widely.

Fair enough

But here's a case where it works in practice but not in theory:

Culture is what the organizations' disparate polity say it is, including, by the way, the ideas of the leadership. It's not exclusively given from on high. It's distributed, quite federalized, balkanized and local. In fact, it's not an "it" at all.

Here it's one thing; over there: it's another. Collectively, there are norms and themes that stitch all the differences into one large tent, and probably even a headline about the big tent could be written.

But there could be a problem: what if, as a leader, you see an imperative to change "the culture"? What then? How do you go about influencing a balkanized culture?

Not easy is the first answer.
  • You need influence(s), entire strategies, a corps of ambassadors; incentives; and a compelling narrative.(*)
  • You've got to get "street smart" and work the local issues, fashioning a value set that will attract a following but also be responsive to the greater narrative.
  • You probably need a lot of time and patience 
At the end of the day, you can be an autocrat -- basically illiberal -- or a democrat (small "d"). Only the latter is sustainable by it's own energy. All else is inefficient, consuming more than is returned.
(*) Narratives fall broadly into to fearful or optimistic. The latter is the easier sell. It fits well with our unthinking "flight or fight" instincts. And, our natural bias, as human beings, is to fear loss more greatly than we reach for opportunity.

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