Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight . . . and other truths about corporate culture

Never bring a knife to a gun fight, Kid. ~Butch Cassidy

One of my favourite scenes in the movie Indiana_Jones_and_the_Temple_of_Doom is where he is confronted by a very large enemy wielding a big sword.  Here is the clip:



My father was a carpenter who became a school teacher, then school principal and finally a RightToolstate education administrator.  He was full of wise old country sayings from his upbringing on a Oklahoma cotton farm, and one of his most frequent was “always bring the right tool for the job.”  And he was right.  The right type of saw made all the difference when cutting wood for one of my DIY projects as a kid.

Reshaping Corporate Culture

I have sat through, as a participant and as an outside consultant/observer, dozens of senior management meetings where a big, “wickedly complex” problem was being discussed. I’m certain you’ve experienced such meetings more than once in your life.  And more often than not they end, after much debate and points of view, with no real resolution to the problem. And of course, since everyone in the room is an expert in a function within the organization (HR, Marketing, Manufacturing, Operations, etc.), there are lots of different ideas and approaches. Reminds me of the blind men each describing an elephant based on what part of the animal’s body it was touching.


The problem with “wickedly complex” issues, and we have plenty in the world today, is that they tend to be multiple problems fused together, each adding to the complexity and the difficulty in finding a solution. And culture change is one big wickedly complex challenge for a senior management team, mainly because its tentacles are intertwined around every person, function, location and region across the organization.

Culture is not an initiative, it is the enabler of all initiatives.

So how to solve such a wickedly, complex issue as reshaping corporate culture?  While there are many different solutions, the initial problem solving approach is always the same. Senior management must take off their functional “hats” ( = points of view) and adopt the Enterprise Point of View. It’s an enterprise wide issue, not just a functional or regional issue.

For example, when the diagnosis is that “we seem to have a culture of lack of accountability and passing the buck” you can be certain there are multiple causes. One cause is usually a weak hiring profile, focusing on skills rather than character. A second cause is the overly complex organization matrix structure where people are constantly second-guessed by multiple bosses. A third is a dramatic cut back on management training so that managers lack good people coaching skills. A fourth is a history of “family values” that promotes being nice to people, so poor performance and passing the buck is not confronted. A fifth is often a weak On-Boarding process where people are not given a grounding in the required behaviours that deal with their particular responsibilities, a sixth comes from that fact that senior management focuses on everyone meeting their departmental or functional goals and budgets at the expense of teamwork, sharing of resources and common sense working.

So, no one person has the solution! And only by adopting an Enterprise Point-of-View, can wickedly complex problems begin to be solved.

Alan-MulallyAlan Mulally understood that the near bankruptcy of Ford was not just a result of an economic downturn, but instead this wickedly complex problem had its roots in the Ford corporate culture where executives competed with each other over budgets and staff, where presentations were “sanitized” by bosses before they were presented to the big bosses, where finance was running the show to such a degree that styling and quality was underfunded, where telling the truth was a firing offense.  It took a leadership team taking off their functional hats and adopting  an Enterprise Point of View to find the solutions.

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.  ~Albert Einstein

Next time you and your leadership team are faced with a wickedly complex problem, it’s time to park your functional expertise at the door and look at the overall Enterprise for some useful insights.

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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