Wood Carving, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012)
She’s really turning things around, a colleague of mine remarked of a senior leader at her institution. “She’s made it clear she’s got the courage to take on the stone-throwers, the ones who object to everything. And she completely lives and breathes the mission of the University, and reminds us of it when we’re slogging through tough changes.”
My colleague nailed an important key for any organization, especially ones facing big changes. That key? Organizational culture, and the important responsibility leaders have to signal it matters to everyone.
My colleague works at a great institution, with a long and venerable history. Its mission statement, like many in American higher education, is lofty and civically-minded. That institution also has thoughtfully-designed institutional structures. And not much of that mattered until … you got it … good signaling from leadership energized those who execute daily on mission. Culture matters. When that administrator took on the stone-throwers —by listening, engaging, and drawing attention toward common purpose— she created space for people who wanted to work and had been choked out by negativity. She signaled there was space for the change agents on campus, people like my friend who were willing to take risks and try something (but didn’t want to take a rock to the head to do it). “Living and breathing mission” was shorthand for consistency, credibility, and ultimately, trustworthiness. That leader’s reputation was not “ego” and “short term gain” or “up and out.” And reminding her constituency of a big vision they all share, while also acknowledging the daily grind, asked people to live a big purpose even, and especially, when change was hard.
So what’s my takeaway from this example? We’re all part of organizational cultures —in our workplaces, our homes, our clubs and faith communities, and in a shared civic culture. We need to be talking about how much culture matters. When we lead something, we ought to ask ourselves, “How can I make the culture of this endeavor one where people really engage, flourish, and maybe even have fun together?” When we’re followers and contributors, we need to invite our leaders to be consistent communicators of mission, and to live it, and to give us the space to be our best selves. And when they’re spot on, go ahead, like my friend, and tell their stories. Shape a better culture.