does not match up; something does not line up. Companies espouse a
leadership culture and values, and yet we seldom experience company
leadership aligning with these values. The stated leadership values do
not match the existing leadership behaviours. Why is this? And how can
this alignment be achieved, if at all?
We understand from
research and our own personal experience that each of us holds many
personal identities, depending on our context. We also align with many
different social identities when we join groups or organisations with
which we feel an allegiance, such as companies, social groups, circles
of friends, sports teams, and religious communities. Within these
identities, we align with the norms, practices and cultures of the
particular groups, and so we assert our personal identities, values and
preferences in different ways.
identities are constantly moving pieces of a puzzle and they too change
over our different life stages. Our working identities are constant
works in progress, as we shift through different roles and leadership
levels of a company – moving from managing self, to managing teams, to
leading divisions or departments. Each time we need to come to terms
with our new roles, values and responsibilities, and in due course
become comfortable with how we fit into these new identities.
helps if we personally can relate to this, as we realise that we are
constantly in liminality – at a threshold betwixt and between identities
– and that our identity is never fixed or static. We are not chasing
one elusive authentic self, so that when we finally reach that state we
can sigh a huge sigh of relief and believe we have reached our
destination. The more we can embrace our constantly evolving personal
change, the more we can embrace the constantly shifting change in our
companies and the world today. The changing status is then less
threatening and it becomes easier to experiment and try different roles.
This is the first capacity we could inculcate in our leaders – an
awareness of their own capacity to see and embrace their own internal
changes, battles and challenges to help them step up as leaders of
change. Then we can better understand our environment and how to begin
to change things across our companies.
just as our personal identities are constantly evolving, so does the
company leadership culture shift – as people change, as circumstances
change, and as different pressures are brought to bear on the future
direction of the company. We need to be alert to our own changes, and we
need to be alert to the actual leadership changes in our businesses.
And if we find that personal and organisational leadership culture is
shifting, it is easier to understand why our interventions often fail to
achieve the impact we desire. We are working with a ‘moving target’, so
a traditional linear plan will not work.
culture is like a jelly mould that is a fixed shape, and even if the
matter is translucent we often don’t realise how strong the hold is.
When we try to change it by prodding a finger into one side of it, it
will always wobble back into shape. The leadership culture is greater
than the individual leader. A leadership culture is informed by the
senior executives, by the systems evolved over time, by the successes
and failures, and by the different power dynamics of the time. So how do
we change it, if at all?
The first step is
to understand clearly what the existing predominant and influential
leadership culture is. That is, we should look at it not how we want to
see it, but as it is, warts and all. We should understand why that
leadership culture is in place, how it works and what purpose it serves.
We should see it from multiple perspectives first, then we can exercise
our choices as to where to intervene, or not.
entrenched leadership culture cannot simply be weeded out, nor will it
simply disappear as you replace leaders. Therefore, we should then
consider how these very characteristics can be reframed into positive
effects. We need to have an overarching and shared perspective of the
existing leadership culture: we should evaluate what is working, what is
not working, what is emerging and what is desired. We could even run
some scenarios of what might evolve in different leadership culture
trajectories. Thereafter we can focus on nurturing those existing
behaviours and cultural norms that are working and support those
struggling to emerge.
We should foster the
emerging trends and leadership in line with our chosen or preferred
future. We do this in our lives, too, by reinforcing the habits and
practices we want to take with us into our futures. Our futures start
now, and our interventions need to be iterative and emergent themselves.
Start implementing today – this is how change is achieved. By starting
to be the change we want today, it will become the new way, the new
norm. Start in the small interactions, and these will grow into larger
The second step is to understand all
the systems which reinforce leadership behaviour and culture. Start with
the holistic view of the change. Then ask the tough question: Can the
leadership culture change? What will it take to change? Are we willing
or even prepared to put in what it takes to change? Is the company
willing to live with the consequences? Then when we do coach and develop
individual leaders there is a framework to support the changes. And, of
course, individual leaders have agency and will influence these
changing structures as well. Do these things simultaneously, and craft
the company interventions as part of the leadership development and
Re-craft the leadership
vision so that leadership change is firmly addressed. It will not work
otherwise. Facing up to this reality early on can save a lot of
heartache down the road. As long as we are aware of what is really going
on, we have choices we can make about what changes we choose to take
Many companies do have a holistic
perspective of change in mind, but what is often missing is the
alignment and integration. The interventions are often delegated to
different teams in human resources, the C-suite, and learning and
development, and somehow the overall messages and intent are lost. Keep
an eye on the overall goal and be open to changing routes along the way.
Keep in touch with the leaders involved. Individuals are not blank
slates waiting to be worked on, but will themselves interact, shift,
adopt or reject that which comes their way. Find the stories and changes
that are bringing the changes you want and ride those waves. We should
work with those areas that work with us. And most of all, we have to be
the leader we desire to see across the organisation.
Credit: This amended article was originally published in ASTD’s newsletter Talking Talent in February 2016.
Sarah Babb is
an advisory board member of ASTD and her areas of expertise include
leadership in transition, leading in complex times, personal leadership,
women in leadership, the emergence of new leadership and leading into
the future. She is a faculty member at USB Executive Development.