I have always been taught that leaders should strive to influence their respective organization’s “culture.” Forbes defines workplace culture (noun) as, “The shared values, belief systems, attitudes, and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.” Its importance transcends industries as even the most prolific football coaches adopt excellent leadership quotes like the following:
Leaders create culture. Culture drives behavior. Behavior produces results.Urban Meyer
Even so, “influencing culture” is an abstract, seemingly mythical, and often elusive concept. It leaves us with the most basic question: “How?” To answer, I first consulted my friends in the biology profession who define “culture” (verb) differently. In biology, to “culture” is to “maintain in conditions suitable for growth.” With that in mind, I determined that a leader’s journey to influence culture involves establishing shared beliefs, values, and ideals to create an environment for individual and team growth. Our ability to create such an environment begins with an introspective look at some key leadership fundamentals.
Leadership Fundamental #1: Exercise self-awareness and self-control.
There has been one common theme when I discuss culture with others: a toxic work environment. Toxicity in the workplace is counterintuitive as it causes distrust, angst, and disengagement. The most alarming thing that I found is that many “toxic” leaders are unaware of the true impact their actions have on those around them. This first fundamental is a reminder that we must be aware of how our actions (or inaction) impact those around us. Be open to others’ opinions and ideas as long as they align with the organization’s overall vision.
Be tempered and tactful when you respond to others. Praise in public and correct in private. These basic ideas pay dividends in the future.
Leadership Fundamental #2: Be respectable before you demand respect.
Society has taught us that we should demand respect from others. “Respect” is an admiration of the skills and qualities one uses to impact the world around them. With that said, my immediate question is, “what are you doing to impact the world around you?”
This topic reminds me of a conversation with a young recruit from Chicago who we were preparing to send home for behavioral issues. I, like many, immediately saw through his “tough guy” charade, but I was determined not to engage. It wasn’t until I directed one of the chief drill instructors to give the young recruit a broom to sweep while he was waiting for us to finish paperwork. That’s when he mumbled under his breath to me as I walked past, “This will set us back 225 years.” I couldn’t resist.
“How dare you feel like you should have a moment of solidarity with me?” I reprimanded. “You’ve done nothing but disrespect your drill instructors and misrepresent your community and family. What have you done to earn any of our respect? How have you positively impacted your community at home? Have you as the self-proclaimed ‘smartest person here’ done anything to help those around you? What makes you think you’ve earned my respect?” The rambunctious and “outspoken” recruit stood quietly with wide eyes. So I walked away as he proceeded to sweep.
I learned from that recruit.
What irritated me was a young man who voluntarily gave his word was now belligerently reneging after less than a week of training. Interestingly, after coming off of my moral high, I began to think about times when I felt I was entitled to respect. That day, I adopted the philosophy that my rank may warrant traditional military customs and courtesies, but my actions and character are the only factors that encourage others to respect me. As the old saying goes, “respect is earned–never given.”
Leadership Fundamental #3: Be firm in your beliefs and values.
A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.Malcolm X
I have read about several prolific leaders like Sam Walton, Jim Mattis, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, and Walt Disney over the years. Though these leaders led in various industries, they had an unwavering dedication to their ideals. Each of these leaders faced significant odds from prison time to public embarrassment to shaming for trying to do the right thing. Yet, each of them have left an indelible legacy in their respective industries. There are two main reasons for their success.
Firstly, people long for a shared ideology so they feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves. A shared ideology is what tells a society what is morally acceptable or unacceptable. It prevents us from imploding while giving us a general direction. This is why we hear reoccurring topics when political debates and discussions occur. It is an attempt for our society to align ideals. The most successful organizations are led by individuals or a team of individuals who create and teach ideals that the vast majority aligns to.
Secondly, people love structure. Have you ever followed a leader that seemed scatterbrained? I have, and it was exhausting. It seemed as if we never made any progress; we simply reacted to whatever challenges the day presented. It left us unsure what or who to believe in. I usually say these leaders have a “napkin in the wind” belief system. They follow whatever seems right that day, and take the entire organization on a wild ride.
Conversely, I have followed more leaders who had a clear belief system that they firmly followed–even when it looked as if it would fail. It made the leader predictable and gave us the freedom to take independent actions that aligned with firm ideals to influence success. These are the organizations that usually trade wild swings (whether positive or negative) for steady progress over time.
Leadership Fundamental #4: Show love and patience.
I’ve talked about love and patience several times before because these are critical aspects of any leadership discussion. I introduced my thoughts on love during a podcast interview with J. Fuller. I defined the word “love” as “sacrificing one’s life (time, ego, emotions, and efforts) for another’s wellbeing.” In another post, Overflow Account: How to develop healthy relationships that develop healthy relationships, I explained that patience requires action as we build our capacity to accept delay without frustration.
As such, love and patience allow leaders to prioritize individual growth by providing resources, space, and grace.
Leadership Fundamental #5: Don’t gossip.
Often those that criticize others reveal what he himself lacks.Shannon L. Alder
As leaders we must be intentional about what we say; especially when we are talking to and/or about those we lead. Nothing is more toxic than a little gossip. Whether we mean to or not, we all can fall victim to gossiping about someone else. Gossip is often the result of insecurities, intimidation, and the need to highlight one’s faults to overshadow your own. The problem is, gossip betrays trust–which is the glue that holds any team together. Thus, when we gossip or allow gossip to occur, trust amongst team members and in the organization deteriorates which lessens productivity.
If you were to ask ten people within an organization how they’d feel if they knew their leader was gossiping about them, the least confrontational answer you would receive is, “I don’t care. I’ll just do my job and go home.” Even this answer implies that the individual is disconnected from and dispassionate about the organization. It’s important to note that a dysfunctional organization is made up of disconnected and dispassionate individuals. So in order to maintain a highly functional organization, we must identify and eradicate all roots of gossip.
Leadership Fundamental #6: Take care of your home.
There were a couple of songs that came to mind when I thought of this topic. The first says, “Sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine.” (Song by The Williams Brothers). The other says, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” (Song by Michael Jackson). These two catchy songs have a similar message that forces us to take an introspective look at how we conduct business in our own organization.
The first song is likely a spin-off of the Bible verse in Mathew that uses an analogy to tell us that we should focus on improving our own organization before looking at ways to improve someone else’s. Sometimes, we become enamored with and distracted by what other organizations are doing. Contrarily, we should identify our own sustains and improves and take the appropriate actions. Michael Jackson echoed that same sentiment in his song as he reminded us that change begins internally.
One of the biggest myths is that taking appropriate actions require us search for solutions that are external to our organization. However, research has shown that numerous successful organizations thrive on employee-generated solutions. That could mean promoting from within, restructuring the organization, or firing those who no longer align with the company’s ideals or goals. I called this “grooming for growth.” You develop, resource, and prepare employees to build the company and brush away the loose ends and dead weight.
When I worked as a computer programmer/analyst at Tyson Foods Inc., the CEO at the time, Donnie Smith, would say, “The answer is always in the room.” This is the art of using past experiences to inform future successes instead of allowing the same experiences to fuel fear of the unknown.
Leadership Fundamental #7: Be an example. Let your actions reflect your words.
People are constantly watching and examining whether or not our actions align with our words. This is by far one of the easiest ways to gain or lose trust and support as a leader. I’m more willing to follow a leader who sets and achieves his or her own high standards. In turn, it encourages me to do the same, and eventually this attitude pervades the organization and becomes its identity. That is the ultimate goal for the successful leader: To develop an environment where individuals are inclined to set and achieve high standards that align with the organization’s ideals and goals.
It’s easier to measure what we’ve told people than it is to measure how we’ve changed people. It is easier to preach to people than to practice with them.Eric Greitens in Resilience
Leaders are change agents, because we are empowered to stimulate growth. Our leadership abilities heighten when we transform our knowledge into intentions and allow our intentions to become consistent actions (remember “Establishing Winning Habits?”). This is an all-encompassing fundamental because our actions (not words alone) will either support or detract from our overall goal to create an environment for individual and team growth.
Therefore, I encourage you to take action today to apply these fundamentals to culture success in your organization. Success and growth begin with you!
Olaolu Ogunyemi: U.S. Marine Officer | Mentor | Best-selling Author