To Develop Leaders, Start with Culture and Values

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Effective leadership is highly context-dependent. Leadership never exists in a vacuum and people behave based on an idea of what is ‘normal’, expected and rewarded by the organisation. These change from one environment to another. So, a leader who is effective in one organisation may not do as well in another. The leader’s behaviour and the prevailing culture and values need to align. They also need to reinforce each other. By prevailing culture and values, we mean the ones that the organisation actually lives, which may not be the same as the desired culture and values as explained on the website and during the onboarding process.

In the battle between individual behaviour and culture, culture always wins.

The prevailing culture of an organisation can be simply seen as ‘how we do things around here’. It is clearly communicated in pivotal moments. Typically, these include:

  • What happens when we are under pressure?
  • What happens when someone makes a mistake?
  • Who is promoted and for what reason?
  • How do people respond if someone has a new idea or suggests a change to a process?

Therefore, there is no point in training which conflicts with cultural norms. For example, when training managers, we often talk about the benefits of creating a ‘feedback culture’. We teach the skills of giving frequent feedback, both positive and challenging and asking for feedback for oneself. We are aware though that in cultures that are very ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ or conflict-averse, the skills are unlikely to ever be properly applied. It would result in surprise, even shock, until the prevailing culture adapted. Many people would not take the risk or persist with the behaviour. However, those who have high potential, armed with an understanding of what they are doing and why, will succeed.

The solution lies in talking about culture and values at the beginning of any leadership training. Without time to reflect on cultural and behavioural norms, participants in any programme will not be able to translate the programme into behaviour that they can adopt. They also won’t be able to work out what, if anything, needs to be changed. As defining and safeguarding the culture is a vital element of effective leadership, this is critical.

Most organisations have some form of leadership training. Most fail to align the training with their espoused values and fail to encourage participants to reflect on organisational culture and whether their behaviour aligns with the values. In doing this, they miss the valuable opportunity to embed and reinforce desired behaviours. Importantly, they also miss the opportunity to close the gap between the prevailing and desired cultures.

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