King Canute and Culture Change

There are many versions of the story of King Canute trying to stop the tide.  Some focus on his arrogance, and thus the arrogance of kings and leaders.  Others take a different view and focus on the wisdom of leadership in recognising the folly of listening too much to advisors (and consultants).

This is my version:


Long ago, England was ruled by a king named Canute. Like many leaders and men of power, Canute was surrounded by advisors and counsellors who were always praising him. Every time he walked into a room, the flattery began.

But King Canute was wise and growing tired of hearing such foolish flattery, decided to teach his counsellors a lesson.

“Since you all say I am the greatest ruler and that all things obey me, then bring my throne chair and place it on the sand at the edge of the sea.” He sat down and surveyed the ocean before him. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”

His official advisors were puzzled, but they did not dare tell him the truth. “Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” they assured him.

“Very well,” cried Canute, “I will listen to your counsel and advice.”

Canute shouted at the sea to stop rising, but was soon up to his knees in the relentlessly rising tide.

“Well, my friends,” Canute said, “it seems I do not have as much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps you have learned something today. Perhaps now you will remember that the laws of the universe and nature are far more powerful than any King.”

The royal advisors and courtiers hung their heads and looked foolish. And some say Canute took off his crown soon afterward, and never wore it again.

Organisational Dynamics and Corporate Culture

Because organisations are made up of human beings working together, performance is more a product of the laws of human social behaviour than directives and orders from senior management.

Consultants help executive teams craft clear objectives and compelling mission and values statements, then urge senior management to cascade them far down into the organisation. But the reality is, the actual corporate culture (the behaviours employees use on a daily basis to interact with customers, deal with business issues and relate with their colleagues) is rarely in alignment with these “King Canute” proclamations. More often than not, corporate culture is a conglomeration of strong subcultures that develop through peer pressure and the human need to “fit in” with the group.

It’s time CEOs and senior executives stop listening to the “culture advisors” who sell the belief that “strong and clear leadership messages” and a “top-down sheep-dip training process” is the way to reshape culture.  Change doesn’t happen top-down!  Culture change is actually behaviour change.  Real change is pull, not push!

It is more effective to find the levers to reshape the behaviour of 10,000 employees than to spend three-days revising the “corporate values statements”.

The real problem is, most culture consultants don’t know much about sustainable behaviour change and how to reshape human behaviour, but boy can they help craft witty Values Statements and fun culture change seminars!

When CEOs learn the lesson of King Canute (that most culture consultants and change advisors only give you the easy answers) and look into their organisations to find the real behaviour change drivers and levers, then change can become an effective  pull mechanism rather than the difficult “push” approach!

PS: Canute reigned for 19 years, twice the average CEO tenure, and was King of England, Denmark and Norway. He must have known something about culture!

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:

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
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