The Gauntlet of Corporate Culture


As a form of punishment, running the gauntlet has its origins in Roman times, and probably before.  A thief or coward was forced to run between two long lines of soldiers armed with clubs and spears. As the criminal ran down the line each soldier got one blow at the convicted.  The theory was, if the soldier reached the end alive, his crimes were wiped clean and he was allowed to rejoin his regiment.

In reality, the very few who came out the other end alive were in no shape to soldier for a long time, if ever.

The same running the gauntlet punishment shows up around the world and I remember watching a 1950s Western movie where a soldier captured by the Iroquois Indians was forced to run the gauntlet instead of being killed out right.  It was a Hollywood movie, so he made it through by grabbing one of the indians and using him as a shield.  He then ran off through the woods and escaped. Somehow the hero always escapes!

But in real life, very few emerge alive from the gauntlet.

The Gauntlet of Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is either an enabler or a killer of new initiatives

When any change initiative is introduced, it has to pass through “the gauntlet of corporate culture”, and this is one of the reasons so few change initiatives succeed.  In most organisations the culture is not a change enabler, but a change killer. It might not be a single blow that kills the initiative, it’s more like death by a thousand cuts.

Imagine a change initiative for “more open and honest communications”. The CEO does a town hall meeting about openness and more transparency so that problems can be surfaced and solved quicker.  Logical and definitely a positive set of behaviours in any organisation these days of rapid changes and increased competition. Posters are printed, there are even training classes on communication skills.

And now it’s time for implementation. To survive and become a part of the DNA of the company, this change initiative, like all others, must pass through the “gauntlet of corporate culture”.  Here are some of the many body blows it receives in the first few weeks after the kick-off fanfare:

  • I’m not bringing up a problem, last guy who did got blackballed.
  • Management doesn’t want to hear about problems
  • Every time we try to have honest communications in our staff meeting the boss gets defensive and angry.
  • Those who bring up bad news or expose problems are branded as complainers and not team players
  • If someone points out a problem area, the whole team gets in trouble
  • My boss never gives me any feedback so why should I give him any?
  • . . . . .  (You can probably add a dozen or more cultural body blows from your own experience)

In many companies the corporate culture, established and habitual ways of behaving and thinking,  is a blocker of change initiatives, not an enabler and many well-intentioned improvement initiatives get battered down before they have a chance to take root. In other companies the culture supports innovation, risk taking, “do it, try it, fix it”, trial and error, learning from mistakes, encouraging ideas and pointing out problems early.

Walmart and F. W. Woolworths were once the same size and in the same industry, now one is the worlds largest corporation by revenue and the largest private employer with 2.2 million employees globally, and the other has long since disappeared. Two very different cultures, one agile, empowering and adaptable, the other hierarchical, rigid and “corporate”.

F.W. Woolworth was the retail phenomenon of the twentieth century. The mass-market shop sold factory-made goods at rock bottom prices. It was the first brand to go global, building to more than 3,000 near-identical stores across the world.


Its shares were the gold standard of the New York and London markets, paying dividends that others could only dream of. To become a supplier was considered a licence to print money.

Part of its magic was an ability to adapt to fit into different local communities and to ‘go native’, without sacrificing its identity (same strategy as Walmart).

But, having risen like a meteor, all the way to the top, it faded into oblivion in the USA and Canada in the 1990s. The British chain went from normal trading in 800 stores to complete shutdown in just 41 days.

The question on everyone’s mind today is:  Will Walmart succumb to the rise of Amazon and Alibaba?  Culture will play a big role in their futures.

If you want to be excellent at strategy execution or business improvement, first take a look at your corporate culture.  Is it an enabler for change, or the gauntlet of death?

And if you don’t know, it’s time to find out before you waste more time, energy, money and management credibility on failed change initiatives.


Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

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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