The Consequences of Culture

When asked what should a leader do, or how should a leader lead, or what qualities should a leader exemplify, the word “culture” is not typically at the top of the list. A leader should have a vision, a leader should be able to communicate and mobilize and make decisions, and, of course, a leader is supposed to be open and honest. No mention is made of the importance of “culture” – of the culture of the group or organization – in part, I think, because what exactly is culture is so difficult to define.

However, the importance of culture is impossible to overestimate. This is not to say that the leader is responsible for the culture of a group or organization – no individual could possibly shoulder this burden, certainly not single-handedly. Among other reasons, culture is composed in good part of intangibles, including history and ideology and values. Still, the leader’s responsibility in the realm of culture is large, even if it consists of little more than sending the same message, over and over and over again.

The consequences of an organizational culture gone bad, or simply awry, happen just now to be in ample evidence. Two cases of egregious wrongdoing or, depending on how you look at it, egregious mismanagement, are making front page news on nearly a daily basis. And, in both cases the problem is being attributed to a word long considered somewhat out of fashion – “culture.”

“How do you change the culture?” asked the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer of Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.  “How do you go about communicating to the people who have been part of the history of this company for years that things must change?” Of course Barra herself has been “part of the history of this company for years” – which of itself is an issue. Because of her long history at the company Barra must, in my view, go. But while deposing her is necessary, it is not sufficient. Even with a new leader, one who must be from outside the company, some form of Lauer’s question will linger: How do you change a corporate culture in which lack of transparency, lack of responsibility, and lack of accountability have been endemic?

Similarly with the VA, in particular the health care system that is now revealed as woefully inadequate. This is not a problem of a few rotten apples in a barrel. Rather the barrel is so full up with deficiencies: the problem is the whole, not the parts. Which is precisely why the word “culture” reappears here. Investigative reporters for the New York Times write that certainly in the nation’s military hospitals, “mistakes and a culture of secrecy persist.” Same with a report delivered to Barack Obama by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson. It also invoked the word “culture” – it concluded that the VA’s health care system was characterized by a “corrosive culture.” Gibson himself concurred, saying in a summary statement, “We know that unacceptable, systemic problems and cultural issues…prevent veterans from receiving timely care. We can and must solve these problems as we work to earn back the trust of veterans.”  (Italics all mine.)

Given the evidence which, while circumstantial, is persuasive nevertheless, that culture matters, the question for experts on leadership and, for that matter on followership, is can people be taught to change culture, and if so how? Of course before this question there is one other: What exactly is culture and how does it affect how we think and what we do?

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