Is there any doubt that a leader influences the culture of a district, department, school, or other group? While perhaps not totally responsible for it, the leader plays a large role in helping create or sustain it. That culture either works for or against you and your departmental or district goals and mission.
In Mary Alicia Lyon’s article on leadership from a teacher’s perspective, she identifies 4 types of “high-impact” administrators and contrasts them with 4 types of “difficult” administrators. In various ways, high-impact administrators differentiate themselves in the way they genuinely care and seek to understand people – and involve others in productive, meaningful, and worthwhile ways.
In my management consulting days, I worked on a number of organizational culture projects. Early on, we would meet with key staff – in a group and individually. This helped us “take the temperature” and identify critical issues, barriers, and areas for improvement. Typically, leaders would not be present in these meetings, allowing for freer expression – however exceptions were sometimes made.
I distinctly remember two different organizations where leaders were present in the group meeting. In one, employees had indicated that they were fine having the manager there and would prefer to meet as a team. Employees freely shared problems they saw, difficulties they had and even some minor frustrations with leadership style (with the leader present!). The employees clearly felt supported and valued by the leader and organization and had many good things to say about the opportunities they had been given. They were involved in critical decisions and projects and knew their contributions were valued. Individual meetings with the employees validated what we had heard in the group.
In the second organization, the leader had insisted on being in the meeting. It quickly became clear that his goal had been to control the narrative. He corrected people, disagreed with their assessments and monopolized the meeting. Employees started off participating but quickly disengaged. Their silence, eye rolls and pointed looks spoke louder than anything the manager actually said. Follow-up individual meetings brought to light how dissatisfied employees were. They felt marginalized, belittled, and undervalued and couldn’t wait for either their or the leader’s departure.
Interestingly, the people in either organization might have been interchangeable – certainly they were not differentiated by their intelligence, values, or abilities. The difference lay in how these unique qualities were valued and utilized – or not. And it was the leader’s willingness and ability to do this – or lack thereof – that made the difference in each organization. In one, the culture was marked by resentment, dissatisfaction, and minimal effort. In the other, the positive energy was palpable – people routinely exceeded expectations, produced meaningful results, and were willing to go the extra mile for the good of the team and its mission.
So, if a leader is so important in shaping a positive organizational culture, how do they go about doing it? This article describes some tangible things leaders can do – many of which pertain to how they interact with others and the example that they set. #10 is “They speak to their employees like human beings.” Seems like a no-brainer, but maybe it has to be spelled out for some!
We each have leadership roles of some kind whether professionally or personally or on a smaller or larger scale. What kind of leader do we want to be – and what kind of culture do we want to create and have as part of our legacy?