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”.
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.
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.
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