Leaders: The Most Important Factor to the Culture of an Organization

Standing in front only matters if people willing to follow your lead.

Standing in front only matters if people willing to follow your lead.

So goes the leader, so goes the culture. So goes the culture, so goes the company.
— Simon Sinek

The leaders - or lack thereof - are the most important determinant of an organization's culture. Now, when I say 'leader,' I am not talking about titles, roles, or headlines on LinkedIn profiles. I am not talking about awards, fellowships, scholarships or any other label of presumed expertise. Those things may give you status, a sense of entitlement, and even a healthy paycheck, but that has nothing to do with being a leader. Being in charge doesn't make you a leader. The only thing you really need to be a leader is willing followers.

People follow a leader because they want to - not because they have to. Leadership is a human phenomenon - not a management construct. The two indispensable characteristics of the leader follower dyad are trust and inspiration. Think about it: If someone ordered you to trust them, would you? Of course not - it doesn't work that way. Trust is something given freely to a leader. Inspiration is a feeling. Leaders move you to action. They provide the intrinsic, emotive energy for movement along a path toward an objective. Consequently, leadership is more about what's in the heart than what comes from the head.

The two leader qualities that influence the culture of the organization are personality and authenticity. As Part 2 of a five part series on finding your new tribe after military service (you can find Part 1 about Understanding Culture here), I'll explore how these qualities influence the culture of an organization and offer some questions that might help you discover the right tribe in life beyond the military.

Personality Matters

Throughout your military career, you've heard the saying that the unit assumes the personality of the commander. By definition, personality describes the characteristics of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Given the open-loop nature of our limbic system and the existence of mirror neurons - cells and structures within the brain that essentially copy or reflect the behaviors of others in social situations, members of an organization are emotionally and biologically attuned to mimic the behaviors of the leader. With the stage and audience afforded through their position, authority figures - such as executives, managers, directors, and commanders - have the greatest opportunity to shape the thinking, feeling, and behaving of the organization, but that doesn't necessarily mean anyone is willingly following them.

The personality of the person in charge sets the tone or mood for the organization. Just as mood reflects a temporary state of being and feeling for an individual, climate reflects a temporary state of being and feeling for an organization. Frequency and repetition can cause qualities of mood to become hardwired into the psyche and internalized as part of an individual's personality. Same holds true for how qualities of organizational climate become internalized into the organization's culture. This is why climate surveys in the military are so prevalent and punitive. The institution doesn't want one commander's toxic behaviors to permanently pollute the culture of a military unit.

The cues subordinates read from the people in charge sets the example for how they behave in an organization.

Why does the personality of the people in charge matter more in the civilian world? In the military, organizational leadership is transitory - we swap out the people in charge every few years. The same may not be true in the civilian workplace. The same people may work at the same location for the entirety of their career. As they ascend the corporate ladder, their personality becomes internalized as part of the culture of the organization. Understanding the personality, values, and purpose of the people in charge could be more important to finding the right fit for your next career than the published mission and values of the organization.

Authenticity Matters

Because leadership is a human quality, the level of authenticity from the people in charge is important. How the leader shows up is more important than what the leader does and significantly more important than anything the leader says. When it comes to character, team dynamics, and establishing priorities, subordinates will align their actions and behaviors based on what they see from the leader. People in the room feel the tension when a leader is angry. When the leader is inspired, the people feel inspired. When there is genuine hope and optimism . . . well, you get the idea.

Reflect on the most impactful leaders from your career for a moment. You felt a connection. You were inspired. Because of your experience with that leader, you probably sought opportunities to serve with that person again. More than just their success, they provided an example of the kind of leader you wanted to be. They were role models. Because connection works both ways, these leaders probably saw a bit of themselves in you. These human connections set the conditions for true inspiration. You probably never compared that leader's values and purpose with your own, but I'm fairly certain that if you had, you would discover that there was alignment and synergy between you and the mentors or role models you wanted to follow.

When the people in charge are not authentic, there is inherent conflict between who they are and who they want everyone else to see. This conflict has a catabolic effect, and that dissonance presents itself in negative ways. From the perspective of the subordinate, you may respect the position or the rank, but you don't respect the person. You might admire their achievements at the office, but you can't help but notice the genuine misery that infects every other aspect of their lives. The reason you feel disconnected from these individuals is because they are disconnected from themselves. Stated another way, if you cannot connect and inspire yourself in a positive and meaningful way, you won't be able to connect and inspire anyone else. This is why a leader's authenticity is so important.

Authenticity allows the full expression of your values, purpose, and potential in a way that invites others to be connected and inspired by your example. Authenticity is contagious.

What Kind of Leader Do You Want to Follow?

When assessing how the leadership of a particular organization influences the culture, you want to ask thought provoking and insightful questions. The "yes" or "no" inquiries may not reveal whether or not the people in charge are actually anybody you might want to follow. Here are three questions to help uncover how the leaders are influencing the culture in your search for the next tribe in life beyond the military:

Question 1: How does working at this company honor your personal values? This is a particularly powerful question when directed at the executive and management staff of an organization. It reveals whether or not the authority figures recognize their values and how those values shape the personality of the organization. Consider how you would have answered this question about how serving in the military honored your values to assess the quality of answers you might hear from potential employers. Finding the right fit means finding a culture that honors your values, which is why this question is much deeper than simply asking someone to recite his or her values.

Question 2: What can you tell me about the mentor relationships at this company? This is a loaded question that presumes that mentor relationships actually exist. If nobody recognizes anyone on the organizational chart as a mentor or professional role model, it might suggest a disconnection between the workforce and upper management. Alternatively, it might suggest that nobody in the organization is setting the kind of example that anyone would want to follow. Consider how you would have answered this question in the military. Listen for the cues that characterized your mentors and professional role models from the military.

Question 3: How would you explain the turnover in this organization? Every organization has turnover. The real question is why people choose to leave. Social connection is a basic psychological need. If people don't find it in their current organization, they will go looking for it elsewhere. Even with a great mission and an inspired workforce, the presence of a poor leader makes for a toxic organization. When you see the revolving door of management and staff, take a serious look at who's in charge. In the military, people fought hard for assignments to units with great leaders, and when those individuals were toxic, they fought hard to leave.

The most effective leaders have figured out that the people are the most important mission of any organization.

Most importantly, when you are networking or interviewing with managers and staff, pay attention to how they characterize the people in the organization. Are they impressed with their business metrics or their people? Humility matters. Managers care about profit and loss, leaders care about people. Be cautious of the authority figure who characterizes their people in monetary terms. Those aren't leaders. They are authority figures who don't recognize the intrinsic value of their workforce, and more likely than not, the culture of that organization is likely to be toxic.

A leader who leverages their authenticity to cultivate trust and their personality to foster inspiration will always outperform the manager who sees people as a means to an end. Leaders are the most important - but not the only - factor in determining the culture of an organization. The next three articles will describe the other factors that influence the culture in organizations. For now, recognize the personality and authenticity of the kind of leaders you most wanted to follow, and remember that just because a certain person is in charge, that doesn't make him or her a leader. Find your inspiration and leaders you can trust, and you will likely find a culture fitting to become your new tribe.