The Leader Owns the Culture

photo of lifeguard at a pool

Bob Anderson and Bill Adams, co-founders of The Leadership Circle, often use this thought-provoking phrase: “Leaders bring the weather.” [The Leadership Circle] By this they mean that who the leader is — the leader’s way of thinking, being, and doing — creates the organizational culture. Good leaders bring sunshine and gentle breezes. Bad leaders bring thunderstorms and hurricanes.

In one sense, everyone in the organization is responsible for a healthy and productive culture. According to the definitions I offered in my last post, organizational culture is, above all, shared. Anyone can foul the swimming pool, and it takes the cooperation of all the swimmers to keep the pool clean.

But leaders have custodial power over organizational culture. 

The people who are in there swimming all day won’t notice that the culture is slipping into disrepair until it’s in really bad shape. Heads down, goggles on, they’re perfecting their form, counting their laps, keeping to their lanes—getting their own jobs done. Supervisors are doing all that while fulfilling their responsibility to help their direct reports get their jobs done, too. These front line people – and even many mid-level managers – can’t see early signs of toxicity creeping into the system.

(See why I love the swimming pool metaphor? It so perfectly captures the way organizational culture is all around us in a way that is essentially invisible until you decide to pay attention — until you decide to create culture on purpose.)

The organization’s leaders have the benefit of the meta-view — they can see the whole pool from the lifeguard’s chair. The owners of for-profit corporations, the senior executives of nonprofit organizations and government agencies — they are standing there above the pool where they can see what’s going on. 

The leaders are also like pool maintenance technicians. They have organizational assessment tools they can use to diagnose problems that are hard to see — pH test kits for organizational effectiveness, if you will.

Most importantly, leaders are like the owners or managers of the pool: They have the power to make the changes needed to bring the system back to full and healthy functioning.

Mid-level managers can’t be held responsible for the culture of the organization as a whole, but they do have custodial power over the culture of their team. They may be victims of the challenges of the corporate culture, just like their direct reports. But mid-level managers can create a mini-culture in their own unit, working with their own people to define team processes and standards. If it works, other managers will want to imitate their success. By shining a light on the fact that culture can be created with intention, one mid-level manager can influence the culture of the whole organization.

Custodial power carries the responsibility for keeping the organizational culture healthy and productive. When I shared my pool metaphor and the concept of custodial power with a coaching client, he got it right away. He said:

If I have primary ownership of the pool, then, if it’s not clean and healthy, I have to own that. Whether I’ve allowed my culture to slip intentionally or unintentionally, it happened on my watch. If I don’t own that, I’m not fulfilling my obligations. 

What that means practically is constantly monitoring how your team and the people in it are functioning. To do so, you first have to intentionally create a culture designed to enable everyone to work together toward common goals, and create feedback loops that give you more than just your own perspective..

What you can do today: Take an honest look at the level of responsibility you take for the culture of your team. Thinking back over the past two weeks, how often did you look at yourself and your actions (rather than at someone else) when something went wrong? 

Questions for discussion: Does the concept of custodial power make sense to you? Do you agree or disagree with my coaching client? Why?

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