The Leadership of Corporate Culture


Real leadership is about influence, not a title or position!

Dr. Larry Senn wrote his PhD dissertation at UCLA in 1970 on a breakthrough concept in business and organisation behaviour. The title was “Organizational Character as a Tool in the Analysis of Business Organizations” and it essentially set forth the principle that organisations, like people, tend to have a character style, or personality which in many ways determines the way they behave.

Some people have a more reserved and formal personality while others are more informal and outgoing.  Some people are risk averse while others are daring and always pushing the envelope.  Different personalities lead to different ways of behaving.  And according to Larry’s research, we now know that organisations have different personalities which show up in how their employees behave with each other, with customers, and how they react to business challenges and change.  This insight paved the way for the now classical concept of corporate culture (think of corporate culture as the “personality” of the organisation).

Larry and I met in 1978 and co-founded the Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group to focus on helping CEOs and senior teams understand and shape their corporate culture in order to improve performance.  One of the concepts we used heavily in our work with senior teams was the principle that “organisations are shadows of their leaders”.

Leadership Shadows

In other words, the collective and routine behaviours of the senior team heavily influence how the entire workforce behaves. In essence, employees take their cues on what is acceptable and what is not by watching the actions and behaviour of their senior leaders, and since people in organisations have a great need to belong and fit in, they tend to adopt the behavioural traits of the senior executives.

Thus the behaviours of the leadership has a significant impact on establishing the corporate culture. An aligned senior team creates an aligned and high-performance culture while a senior team that has significant infighting and lack of alignment creates a fractionated and less effective corporate culture.

New Insight on Who Shapes Corporate Culture

While most culture consultants use the “shadow of the leader concept” to focus exclusively on the senior leadership team dynamics in order to design culture change programmes, they usually miss asking the very important question:

Just who are the individuals that influence the culture?

The common assumption is the members of senior leadership team. But we all know about the danger of assumptions.

Since I retired from Senn-Delaney in 2000 after 23 years as CEO, I have discovered some important new insights about the shadow of the leader concept:

The senior leadership team has less of an impact on shaping and sustaining corporate culture than previously thought!

While the founders and senior team influence the culture of an organisation in the early start-up days, as the organisation grows in size and ages, formal leaders have less and less influence on the corporate culture.  Employees tend to trust and respect the “informal leaders” more than senior executives or senior managers!  And the social peer pressure to conform to the group or subgroup norms become the dominant shaper of culture.

Leadership influence

Studies show that people tend to role model and pattern their behaviour after those whom they admire, trust and respect. Peer pressure and social influence is extremely powerful and can be seen in the growth of fads in everything from fashion to gang membership.

I was in college in the 1960’s during the Free Speech – Hippie movement. No one passed a policy or law that it was cool to grow long hair, wear flowery bell bottom trousers and protest against the war. It all happened through peer pressure and the influence of trusted and respected peers and admired individuals. And the same patterns of informal leaders and influence are true inside organisations.

Fortunately today we have sophisticated analytical tools that can clearly show who are the informal leaders and even quantify that informal leaders have significantly more social connections and influence than senior management.  And are more trusted!

All this new insight and data adds to our ability to help senior leadership reshape corporate culture to better match strategy and improve performance. It’s no longer just about the senior team. Leadership resides in many more places and there are multiple tools for culture change available (see LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture by John R Childress, and  Viral Change, by Dr. Leandro Herrero)

The sad fact is, most senior leaders have no clue as to who are the informal leaders and key influencers of the corporate culture.

We all have work to do if we want to improve organisational performance and the workplace environment.

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid


PS: 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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