Research shows that no single force has greater impact on the character and quality (in essence, the culture) of an organization than the person who assumes the primary leadership role of that organization. Two popular witticisms pointedly illustrate this influence: “No stream rises higher than its source” and “Fish rot from the head first.”
This week, with excerpts from a new book available from Standard Publishing, we give every leader the chance to consider, “Do people in my spheres of influence blossom or wither—do they flourish or flounder? How am I creating a culture that nurtures relationships as much as it achieves tangible, measurable results?”
I asked a woman who had worked in several nonprofit organizations over the years: “What’s it like to work here?” “Oh, this is the best place I’ve ever worked!” she replied. “It’s actually fun to come to work. People work hard here, but they enjoy being together. They laugh a lot. Personally, I feel valued and listened to. And I love that we take time as a whole office to pray every day.”
That was quite a contrast from an employee in another organization who described his experience this way: “I don’t know how much longer I can work here. It’s not only the pressure, but I’m just feeling personally used up. It seems like there are a lot of hidden rules around here, and I feel scared a lot that I’m going to do something stupid that I didn’t even know about. I don’t like being yelled at.”
These starkly contrasting descriptions describe very distinctive “cultures.” There are many different work cultures because there are so many variables in what comprises culture. Culture includes all the characteristics of a human environment:
• from what people wear to how they treat one another.
• from how people communicate to what is valued in the workplace.
• from how people view their work to what attitudes they display day by day.
• from how supervision is handled to whether people feel connected.
Three Truths About Organizational Culture
Every work environment has a culture. As a young leader, I did not pay much attention to the cultures around me. I just tried to fit in and do what I was supposed to do as well as I could wherever I was. However, over time I began to be aware that every organization—every family, every church, and every nonprofit or multinational corporation—has a culture. And I realized three very important truths about culture.
1. Culture matters—Culture matters . . . a lot, because culture is like soil. The nutrients and pollutants in that soil deeply affect whether the people who are a part of the organization can flourish and be effective in accomplishing their mission or whether they will be starved and stressed.
2. Leaders can change culture—While everyone in an organization contributes to the culture, leaders who are attentive can, over time, use their power to help the culture change and become more deeply nourishing to those who live or work in it. When I look back at the family I grew up in, I am able to describe many characteristics of that family culture. My family lived in a small, mostly farming community. My parents were both lawyers who worked very hard in their careers—hard work and competency were big values. Since political matters were important, so was the ability of each member of the family to learn to argue a point of view. Religion, which was more about right behavior than about faith in a personal God, was assumed. And there was an expectation that all of us were responsible to help the world be a better place. My parents, as leaders in the family, set the tone for these and so many other elements of the family culture that shaped me.
When I was old enough to become more aware of how other peoples’ families worked, I realized that not all family cultures were the same. One of my friends had alcoholic parents. In that home the alcohol brought inconsistency and sometimes the fear of abusive outbursts. My friend learned to read the environment of his chaotic home and behave accordingly. After his father, and later his mother, became a Christian the whole culture of his home began to change. Life was different for everyone in the household.
With larger communities or organizations, the people and environments that shape the culture become more varied. However, even in a vast mosaic of cultural inputs, discernible patterns become evident. It is still possible to describe “American culture,” even though the United States is composed of significant cultural diversity. Indeed, that diversity in itself becomes a describable cultural element. Culture can be influenced by leaders, over time, in significant ways.
3. The more significant the position, the greater responsibility—Jesus told his disciples in a parable about managers and servants that “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). Organizational culture requires attention. All the participants in the culture contribute, but organizations are not merely destined to default to whatever they become. Leaders can shape cultures. When organizational culture is deeply nourishing, it’s likely because the key leaders have done something right. And conversely, when culture is toxic, it is the leader’s responsibility to help it to change.
I love what the psalmist Asaph said about David in Psalm 78:70-72: “[God] chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people. . . . And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” God chose David because he had the right heart and the right skills. He moved him from taking care of sheep to taking care of a whole nation. And David continued to do the work of a good shepherd—guiding, nourishing, protecting, and setting the right example and tone for the people.
When we read the details of David’s story, we quickly discover that he did not do everything perfectly. No leader does. However, David shepherded the nation and guided them with a skillful hand. That summary statement is all about the effect that David had on the whole culture of Israel, not just about how he handled a particular task or crisis.
Read the Gospels, and there too we discover Jesus’ attentiveness to the culture among his followers (such as in his rabbinic-style teaching and illustrations drawn from everyday life). He also promoted a broad, culture-changing agenda for his disciples (with the idea of servant leadership and missional lifestyle, among other things). He set a tone by his character and behavior, and he helped them to grow in how they came to treat one another. He promoted attentiveness to the Spirit (see his upper room discourse in John 13–17) and to the Scriptures. He encouraged teachability and affirmed personal transformation. He guarded and guided them, establishing rituals (like the Lord’s Supper observance) to sustain their community and to remind them of truth. Jesus constantly spoke about and demonstrated a whole culture that he called the kingdom of God.
Why Organizational Cultures Go Wrong
If creating, nourishing, and shaping culture is such an important part of what leaders do, why do organizational cultures go wrong? It seems to me that two reasons are central.
Leaders can be inattentive to their own lives—The culture of an organization is a mirror of the character of the leader, but leaders can fail to give attention to their own lives. There are numerous illustrations of this dynamic in the Bible. You only have to look at the impact of dysfunctional parenting among Abraham and Sarah’s descendants in Genesis to see the character flaws of parents being played out in the lives of children—sometimes over generations. Or look at the impact of disobedient kings (actually the majority of kings in the books of Kings and Chronicles) on the cultures of Israel and Judah. The history of God’s people after the time of King David was frequently marked by long periods of decadent and disobedient culture that destroyed the character of God’s people and kept them from fulfilling his mission in the world. The Scriptures make it clear that this was due to the failure of leadership (see Isaiah 3:4-12; 56:9-12; Hosea 5:10; and Zechariah 10:1-3, for example).
Leaders can be inattentive to the culture—Over time, leaders get busier and busier. It just happens. Leaders have gifts. They have vision. And if they also have a servant’s heart, they see what is needed and begin to meet those needs. Leaders easily can become distracted by really good and urgent tasks, to the neglect of the more important responsibilities of giving attention to the people and the culture.
When I was president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, there was a time when I became so busy with speaking, attending meetings, and traveling that I neglected the people in our National Service Center. As a consequence, the culture in the office began to drift in some unhelpful directions. I simply was not there when the pressures of a large project began to create a culture of fear and anxiety—and the misuse of power and some bad decisions on the part of other leaders began to erode the work environment.
At some point it becomes obvious to every leader that he or she cannot do everything. And so the gift of discernment must kick in. Servant leaders should ask better questions than “What needs to be done?” and “What could I do?” in order to shape their calendars. “What am I called to do?” may be a better question to ask to begin this discernment process.
One of my close associates at InterVarsity during this time challenged me to take another look at the priorities of my leadership tasks. One question he asked has stuck with me ever since: “What is it that only you can do as the primary leader of this community?” Asked a different way: “There are many things that you as our leader can do, and many things that need to be done, but what are the things you are uniquely positioned to do—and no one else can do quite as effectively as you?” He did not want me to waste my time, energy, or opportunity, but rather to give myself to those things that were really important for pursuing the organization’s mission and sustaining the community’s health.
The question haunted me, so I began to formulate a list of things that only I could do most effectively in the organization I was called to lead. At the top of my list was this: Only I can be the primary steward of the community’s culture. This has come to be one of the more important lessons that I have learned over the years about leading organizations.
Steve Hayner serves as president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.