Culture Is The Manifestation Of Leadership

GuyCornelius observes that "an organization's culture is just the manifestation of the values of its leaders". Indeed, it is the responsibility of LeaderShip to establish the culture of an organization. And the culture of an organization can have a dramatic effect on its success, as concluded in BuiltToLast.


Isn't it also true that a population selects its leaders in tune with its culture? -- SunirShah

Population is an interesting notion. Which population? The leaders of the "visionary companies" in BuiltToLast are most definitely concerned with growing or selecting future leaders whose values are clearly aligned with the culture's values. But consider the case of a person who is looking for a new job. In any organization he might join or position he might take, the leadership is already in place. His only leverage in "selecting" his leader is his ability to choose which organization to join or which position to take. Unless he is educated as to the issues, and is prepared to seek out the answers during the interview process, it is difficult for him to know in advance what the culture of the organization, or style of its leadership, is. -- RandyStafford


Culture is, quite literally, the manifestation of growth, and wherever you find growth you can also impute leadership (either as literally leading edges of a growing organism, or as the motivation behind growth).

The relationship between growth (culture) and leadership is an interesting one, but I think the statement above oversimplifies the real dynamic in growing, living things. A culture is more than just the manifestation of its dominant leaders, surely. In my garden, the soil is equally important in determining culture as the seed of the dominant tomato plant. -- WaldenMathews

The statement above may oversimplify the real dynamic in a tomato garden :-). But we're talking about corporate cultures here. The HeuristicRules that are used by leaders to make decisions reflect the values of those leaders with respect to the conduct of the corporation's business and the treatment of its employees. Those heuristics and values significantly determine the culture of the corporation. I agree that there are other influences and factors, and they can be significant. For example, the tomato plants might be a group of teammates or co-workers or peers. If the plants are strong enough, then the dominant plant's seed might not matter as much. But management, unlike dominant plants and their seeds, has both the power to poison other plants (see PowerVersusAuthority) and the responsibility to fertilize them (by PraiseRecognitionAndReward?). If management is not careful with this power, or if it neglects its responsibility, the plants will uproot themselves and find another garden. -- RandyStafford Jun04 last edit by c-24-21-156-155.client.comcast.net

Well, that's a pretty good comeback, Randy, but I'm still not satisfied. For one thing, what constitutes poison depends on the environment, not just on the leader who chooses it. And, does that slug lurking under my lettuce leaves understand that he is not the dominant leader of the garden? I'm with Sunir on this one - leadership is more a quality of relationships than of individuals, or at least equally so.

We might stop squabbling if you'd shift your position to say that we could define leadership as an attribute of those individuals who have relatively more, not less, effect on the culture than others. That turns things around a bit and places the authority where it belongs. -- WaldenMathews


I'd like to get past the analogies and semantics issues (I'm not trying to squabble) so we can focus on the main point, which is the effect that the values of people in positions of power/authority/management/leadership in a company have on the culture of that company.

The environment with which I am concerned is a company that develops software as part of its business. Its organization features the typical structure of employees reporting to managers reporting to executives. Poison in that environment is mistreatment of people causing low morale, high turnover, poor quality - in other words, poor culture - which causes poor performance as in failure to meet business objectives or seize opportunities.

I can agree that relationships are implied because leadership is meaningless in the context of a single person. So people who have leadership skills (or not) exhibit them (or their lack) in the context of relationships with other people.

Because their positions carry the authority (as you use it) or power (as the leadership literature uses it) to make significant business and personnel decisions, executives and managers have more, not less, effect on culture by how they make those decisions. They are in positions where good leadership is expected - "leadership positions" - but that does not, obviously, mean they are good leaders. Good leaders foster good culture; bad leaders foster bad culture.

Let's talk about culture and the effects of leadership on it. In CreatingaSoftwareEngineeringCulture, KarlWiegers quotes The American Heritage Dictionary definition of it as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population." Assuming that community or population is the executives, managers, and employees in a company that develops software, what are the salient aspects of its culture? What constitutes a good culture? What constitutes a bad culture? What leadership behaviors promote good culture? What leadership behaviors result in bad culture? -- RandyStafford

Leaders often emerge when problems arise. Often you will find a line engineer taking charge of the team when management above is sick. Even though the gallant engineer has no authoritative power, she has effective power because people will listen to her when they will not listen to their management. Leaders are the one with the real power. And of course they affect culture. They're the ones with the power to do so. -- SunirShah

I agree that such leaders, who lead from a position of influence, have great potential to affect culture - within the scope of that team - because they are listened to and followed. And I agree that their influence can be a stronger immediate force on people than the edicts of managers with authoritative power. But my point is that they are not the only ones who affect culture; in fact their effects are likely to be more ephemeral than those of managers in positions of authoritative power. Consider culture on a scope bigger and longer-lasting than that team: what happens if the emergent, influential leader is not recognized or appreciated by management above? How long before he becomes disillusioned and leaves to join another venture, perhaps taking some of the team with him? Or if the management above is insecure, how long before they remove him from the job or remove the job from him? Managers in positions of authoritative power, whether bad or good, have a tremendous effect on culture - because their beliefs control which behavior patterns get recognized and rewarded. If the culture rewards ass-kissing or bullshit-baffling, then ass-kissers and bullshit-bafflers will get promoted. If the culture rewards successful contributions and good leadership behaviors, then successful contributors and good leaders will get promoted. Thus the culture sustains itself. So if the gallant engineer leaves the team or the company, who has the real power? -- RandyStafford


Randy, okay I think we're now beyond the semantics and analogies, and further in that direction what is the practical application of your insight that the relationship between leaders and culture is significant? In particular, when a culture is "bad" (see below), do you look to its perceived leaders for relief? To what extent will you work that angle in order to effect a "better" culture?

Good questions. All of the visionary companies described in BuiltToLast are at least 50 years old (and have, in the aggregate, outperformed stock market indices by 1500%, and their competition by 700%, over 65 years). All have endured multiple turnovers of leadership at all levels. So the "core ideologies" - core values plus enduring purpose - that define their cultures have outlasted any particular leader. In fact, the core ideologies are built into and reinforced by the companies' "mechanisms" - hiring processes, promotion criteria, award programs, decision-making processes, etc. Contrast this with a very young company - a software startup, say - that may be in its first generation of leadership, or whose core ideology may be undefined or not reinforced in mechanisms. In that scenario, the heuristics used by leadership in making business and personnel decisions define the culture's values. So the practical application of the observation is just as you say - you expect current leaders to establish "good" culture. You work that angle to the extent that you have patience, and confidence in the likelihood of the outcome you desire. If your expectations meet with disappointment, or the extent of your working the angle doesn't yield your desired outcome, then perhaps you conclude you're not aligned with the company's manifest culture, and you leave. Both KentBeck (in ExtremeProgrammingExplainedEmbraceChange) and EdYourdon (in DeathMarch) describe the nature and lament the effects of "bad" culture. Kent even uses the word "inhumane" in describing some cultural qualities, and Yourdon suggests heuristics for deciding when to resign. -- RandyStafford

Some of your questions immediately above are intractable generalities. "What constitutes a good/bad culture?" A chlorinated swimming pool constitutes a "good" culture for me, for a brief time only, while it constitutes a "bad" culture for certain "bad" microorganisms. A software culture you perceive to be good is probably one that promotes your survival, and at the same time it may be quite bad for someone else. If that's too pointed a perspective, then here's another one. Any culture that survives for a time is good for its survivors, by definition. Sorry for reverting back to analogy, but it's always going to be you versus the slug AND you and the slug teamed.

The editors of SoftwareDevelopmentMagazine did not find that these questions are "intractable generalities". They gave CreatingaSoftwareEngineeringCulture the JoltProductivityAward in 1997, and that book is all about differentiating a good software development culture from a bad one. A software development culture that I perceive to be good is one that honors certain ideals, and practices its business in accordance. Among these ideals are ones discussed in various books about software development such as SucceedingWithObjects, ObjectSolutions, CreatingaSoftwareEngineeringCulture, ThePragmaticProgrammer, ExtremeProgrammingExplainedEmbraceChange, and in the various BooksOnLeadership. I think its possible for companies with bad software development cultures to survive, but since high turnover is an effect of bad culture, their "survivors" are shareholders, and they may not benefit much at all. -- RandyStafford

If you're a manager who wants to change the culture, look at how managers can leverage their positions to do so. If you're a "grunt" who wants to change the culture, look there instead. If you're a slug, you'll just have to slug it out. -- WaldenMathews

Please elaborate on what you mean by "slug". I would be interested in your perspective on the prior art in this area - the books I've mentioned on this page, and the BooksOnLeadership. -- RandyStafford

A leader can be a very useful person to have in a crisis, or for a specific purpose. However, the longer ANY leader is in power, the greater the chance for his (usually) or her corruption. Therefore, if you want to maintain a good culture, get rid of your leaders often.


A slug is just another hungry animal in my garden, nothing deep implied. The intractable part of your questions was not in the phrase 'creating a culture', it was in the valuation of a 'good' culture. As I thought I tried to explain, there can be no one universal perspective on that. I didn't mean to be so argumentative, though, and I apologize.

No biggie. You're right - "good" is in the eye of the beholder. I still suffer from the delusion that there might be some consensus within some community (like the authors who have written about the subject, or even this WikiCommunity) on what some "good" qualities might be. -- RPS

I think I always got your gist on this page; I was just pseudo-helpfully picking at some of the edges. In JerryWeinberg's Quality Software Management series, he charges executive management with the job of creating the appropriate culture. Of course, if executive management in a given company is impotent, they will not do that, and the job will forfeit to other forces. But one way or another, a culture will appear (if the company survives). I think Jerry's point comes close to the spirit in which you created this page.

Exactly. I've always wanted to read that series but haven't made time yet (gee, I must be spending too much time wiki'ing :-) Can you post some elaboration of the above? How does Weinberg connect management's behavior to culture? What does he consider appropriate, and how in his view does management create it? -- RPS

Shall I clean up my slimy trail above? -- WaldenMathews

Your choice. Maybe we could try to be GoodWikiCitizen(s) and FixOurWiki, trimming this page down to its meat. -- RPS
Randy, I'd truly suggest reading the book. The one that deals with this subject is Vol 4, Anticipating Change. It's not so much oriented from the "where does culture come from" angle as it is oriented from the "what do the different levels of management actually do". The answer is that supervisory management makes product, middle management makes process models (some of which may get used), and top management communicates business needs. This latter, if done well, indirectly affects culture by allowing everyone at least to latch on to a consistent model. This is as close as you can come to "building the culture", a task that no one can do directly, considering what a culture is.

I read this volume before reading the bulk of the others, and there's no reason I know not to read in that order, if you're interested in this topic.

I don't think Jerry passes judgment on what's appropriate for any particular company or for companies in general, or what's a good culture or a bad one.

-- WaldenMathews


Culture is bigger than the TopDog

2005 Story of the entrenched "HP way" getting in the way

Without shared vision and approach, the most powerful leader (or even leadership team) will fail. The above article is worth reading due to comparisons with LouGerstner the ChiefSoftwareArchitect.

see also OrganizationCulture
CategoryOrganization CategoryCulture

EditText of this page (last edited September 18, 2010) or FindPage with title or text search