It Ain’t All Leadership’s Fault

Willie Sutton

Someone once asked Slick Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, why he robbed banks. The question might have uncovered a tale of injustice and lifelong revenge. Maybe a banker foreclosed on the old homestead, maybe a banker’s daughter spurned Sutton for another.

 Sutton replied; “ I rob banks because that’s where the money is”.

A great number of culture change gurus and corporate culture consultants tend to focus (and many over focus) on the impact the senior leadership team has on corporate culture.  And there are some very interesting reasons for this.

First, the senior team does have an important role in establishing and perpetuating corporate culture.

Second, equating the strengths and weaknesses of the company (and by association the corporate culture) with the behaviour of the senior leadership team fits nicely with the current business infatuation with charismatic leadership and the perceived importance of “rock star” leadership teams.

And third, that’s where the money is!  By focusing on the CEO and senior team as the key influencers in culture and culture change, consultants are opening up the vault to more lucrative business down the line.  The senior team has the keys to the vault!

As someone who has studied, consulted, coached and written about corporate culture and leadership for the past 30 plus years, I do believe the senior leadership team has a significant influence on the corporate culture.  In many ways, organizations are shadows of their leaders and the behaviour of senior executives can set the tone for the culture going forward.

But the impact of leaders and the senior team on corporate culture is not uniform across time, and this is where the bulk of culture consultants get it wrong!  In start-ups and early stage companies, the senior team, including the founder(s), tend to set the “ground rules” and even, in some recent instances, create specific “culture decks” (like at Netflix) that describe the culture in detail.  In small to medium organizations where employees have frequent contact with senior executives, the behaviour of the leaders is of great influence on establishing the culture and the ways of working.

But things are vastly different in large or well-established companies.  Here the impact of leadership behaviours tend to wane rather dramatically, being replaced by the growing influence of peer pressure, fuelled by the very real human need to fit in with the group and not be seen as an “outsider”.

This chart, based on experience and observations, describes the falling and rising Leadership influenceinfluence of these two groups on establishing and sustaining corporate culture.

In many writings on corporate culture, the impact of the leader (CEO), and leadership team has been over exaggerated and as a result, many of those looking to understand corporate culture, how it is formed and how it is sustained have missed a very important and powerful cultural lever, peer group pressure!

However, when leadership teams up with key employees who are respected by others and are also key influencers, the combination is a powerful catalyst in reshaping or realigning corporate culture.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming business book: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, due in October – hopefully!  Let me know if you are interested in reviewing it in your blog or magazine article)

Tight Lines

John R Childress

Contact me for comments or inquiries:

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, Personal Development, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It Ain’t All Leadership’s Fault

  1. Pingback: Benefits that blogging has for your business | AIRR Media

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s