Do leaders understand culture?


Seems like I’ve been having a lot of conversations about corporate culture lately.  Among the most interesting conversations on the topic was with a group of my peers who lead HR teams at some other organizations.  The question that was posed to this group was “Do senior leaders understand culture?”  This question led to some really interesting discussion and some follow on questions.  Rather than to reveal the content of that discussion (at least not yet), I’d like to pose the questions to you to get your thoughts on the subject?

So, here are  few questions for you to consider:

  • Do leaders “get” culture?
  • How do you know when a leader gets culture?
  • Is making an investment in culture a requirement of getting it?  If so, what kind of investment is required?
  • How does a leader who gets culture operate differently than one who doesn’t?

I think these questions are really important to chew on.  The thing I find about the discussion about culture is that it generally exists in the realm of generalities and concepts.  I think we both agree on the critical important of culture, so I’d like to move our discussion more of the specifics around what culture is and what it does.   In my discussion with my peers, we had unanimous agreement on one issue: that culture flows from the leader of the organization.  This is why I think it’s a great place to start the discussion.

I look forward to your thoughts.



  1. Hmm. In my experience, many leaders think that they determine culture, which immediately tells me they don’t get it.

    I deal with one guy who has lived out his entire life within a 20 mile radius. He is in a leadership position within a highly multi-cultural organisation, and he simply cannot see beyond the limits of his small life experience. If someone tries to engage him on a subject, he resolutely sticks to the default position as determined by his own culture. He cannot, will not accept that the other person’s point of view has any validity whatsoever.

  2. I think the knowledge of culture amongst those in the executive ranks can be varied. It also highly depends on their own definition of what the culture is. Often it is a little disconneted from what the culture actually is on the ground

  3. Most leaders don’t “get” culture because they still under-utilize the knowledge around them (ie., never using the wealth of intellectual capital or experience around them). However, it is obvious that, in the main, organizations are still the cultural plaything of the leadership because of the antiquated model almost always used: top-down leadership.

    For leaders to “get” culture they therefore must take a “dip” and give up control. I think for the most part, one will know that leaders are “getting” culture when leaders begin to ask questions and begin building a true sense of community within the workplace. The real “proof is in the pudding.”

    Most workers live disenfranchised lives because they are never engaged. But what if their boss did take a “cultural dip?” What if the boss did start to ask questions and did start to eliminate his or her need for a sense of power and control? The real proof, I believe, lies in the change, the proof in numbers and engagement within employees at the other end.

  4. Pingback: Culture Clueless

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