How Culture Affects Leadership

If you want to be a leader, how successful you are will depend greatly on the culture where you work. “But wait,” you might say, “doesn’t it matter more that you have the ability to lead? That you have the traits that make a leader?” Perhaps, but if the culture you work in doesn’t allow you to practice those traits — or worse still, discourages those traits — they become irrelevant. To be able to lead, first you need leadership skills. Secondly, these skills need to match the values of the culture where you work. Finally, you need the authority to exercise those skills. As IT consultant Tim Bryce writes:

All companies have a culture. In order for employees to function and succeed, it is essential they understand and believe in the culture.1

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. The concepts “organizational culture” and “leadership” are not that simple. There is much debate around the meaning of each of these terms. To understand how culture affects leadership, we need to have a working model for both concepts.


I instinctively know when I’m in a situation where the prevailing culture affects my ability to get things done. Being able to define the culture of an organization will help you to work out the chances of being able to lead in it. To do this, we need to understand what “organizational culture” means. A concise definition is:

The way we do things around here.2

While this is a nice way to capture a complex concept, it is not detailed enough to assess the way “how we do things around here” affects the ability to lead. A more precise definition is:

A pattern of basic assumptions that the group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.3

Although this is more correct, it is harder to grasp in real day-to-day terms. Therefore my preferred definition of organizational culture is the following:

A pattern of shared values, norms, and practices that help distinguish one organization from another.4

What works about this definition is that most of us should be able to easily identify the values, norms, and practices of an organization. Knowing whether they are “assumptions that the group has invented, discovered, or developed” doesn’t matter unless you are trying to change the culture. All that matters here is that we can explicitly identify the culture of a particular organization and assess its impact on the ability to lead.


There is an incredible amount of literature on the subject of leadership. To give you an idea of how many people have tackled the subject, one study took 160 articles out of the 26,000 that existed at the time (from the Expanded Academic Database, 2003), extracted 1,000+ statements about leadership, and compiled them into a model of 90+ dimensions to create “An Integrative Definition of Leadership.”5 This definition takes about 30 pages to explain and is incredibly comprehensive, but it is not very practical. To be able to assess the impact of culture on leadership, we need a working model of leadership that we can apply to different cultures.

The following definition is a simplification of the first sentence in the Integrative Definition:

A leader is someone who selects, equips, trains, and influences followers and focuses them to the organization’s mission and objectives, causing the followers to willingly and enthusiastically expend energy in a concerted, coordinated effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives.

The key points in this heavily edited definition are:

  • A leader is able to exercise influence.
  • There is a vision or mission.
  • Followers are willing to work toward the vision.


Now that we have definitions of both organizational culture and leadership, we can start to look at real-world examples of how culture affects the ability to lead. As defined above, culture is about values, norms, and practices. What we need to do now is work out what the values of the business are, what behaviour is acceptable (and what is not), what the common practices are, and finally, which of these will have an impact on leadership.


Let’s look at an example in which I was a contract project manager for a firm that implemented content and document management systems. The company had been built up over 15 years, and one of the original founders was still in charge as the CEO. He set the style and pace of the company. His main focus was sales and finance, and he was constantly asking his staff if they had won any new work. This focus clearly stated that the company was sales-driven and that making sales was a key value of the culture.

There were two other aspects of the “way things were done” there that captured the other key values of the business. First, the company emphasized getting the work out the door as quickly as possible. “Just get it done and dusted” was the mindset. This showed little respect for the craft of development or the customer. Getting it done mattered more than how well it was done or whether the client was happy.

The second aspect was that the salespeople ran the show. The folks in sales would land a project, then it was up to the delivery team to worry about how to get it done so the salespeople could move onto the next sale. There was little collaboration between sales and delivery. The sale was more important than making sure the work could be done; questions about whether the delivery team had the appropriate experience or skill set were put to the side. They could worry about after the sale was made. The attitude was that there were no problems that couldn’t be solved by winning more work. Not surprisingly, the business had no written values, no formal mission statement, and no clearly stated objective other than making more sales.


A key indicator of norms in a company is what type of behavior is acceptable or, more importantly, unacceptable. At this company, there was a wide range of acceptable behavior. There were people who would regularly turn up after 10am. One staff member had a reputation for only turning up in the afternoon, claiming to have worked from home. There were people who would have regular sick days; the record was over 40 days in a year. One manager was known to regularly organize meetings and then turn up late or forget altogether. One client services manager was considered a bully; he would raise his voice and yell at staff when things didn’t go the way he wanted. There was a salesman who would regularly put in bids on projects, promising that a deadline could be met without first checking that there were people available. Then he would complain if the project was won and it turned out there weren’t available staff to deliver it. Sometimes staff would turn up to work direct from partying with clients or colleagues the previous night.

Clearly many of these behaviors were counter-productive. That’s not so much the issue — people aren’t perfect. What’s more telling is that nothing was done about them. These behaviours were accepted; it was OK to be late, abuse sick days, forget about meetings, fail to consult with peers, and so on.


In terms of practices, these were also quite revealing. There weren’t many formal practices, a significant factor in and of itself. Those that did exist weren’t very useful. For example, there was a weekly meeting that was run by the delivery manager and attended by representatives of each discipline (development, design, analysis, testing, etc.). At the meeting, each representative had the chance to talk about anything he or she wanted. There was no agenda. If something came up that caused debate, it would be discussed but rarely resolved. There were no resulting meeting minutes, no action items, and no follow-through. This was the tone of most meetings of an operational nature.

Information sharing was rare and poorly managed. Staff didn’t have much idea of what was going on at the management level. It wasn’t clear who was in charge of resolving issues that weren’t contained within a single discipline. It also wasn’t clear who was responsible for any production issues or even how to raise such issues. Resolving conflicts was difficult and messy; no one knew for certain who was in charge and could make sure things would get done. At times it felt as if the practice was to ignore the problem and hope that it would go away. Often staff would be resigned to the fact that nothing would happen and either accept that an issue wouldn’t be resolved or work something out themselves.

A typical business practice is to review staff performance on an annual basis. Businesses do this formally or informally, and some do it more than just once a year. In this company, there was no consistent practice. It depended on whom you reported to; some team leaders were diligent and conducted reviews, some didn’t. Many people lacked formal position descriptions. Some people weren’t sure whom they even reported to! For the reviews that did happen, there was no consistent approach, so each team lead did what he or she thought was appropriate. If team leads didn’t do reviews, it didn’t matter. In some cases, employees could work for several years without a review.

In summary, we have a company whose known values are focused on sales, whose norms accepted a wide range of behaviors, and whose practices were informal and inconsistent. Now we can look at how these things affected the ability to exercise leadership.


As noted above, the three required elements of leadership are: (1) ability to influence, (2) a common goal or vision, and (3) followers that are willing to work toward the vision. As we will see, however, even having all three elements in place is no guarantee that effective leadership can be practiced.

A Free Hand

During my contract, a project manager, Julie, was promoted to head of the research and analysis (R&A) department. Julie was not given a position description, objectives, mission, or goals for her new role. Nevertheless, she took the role seriously and decided to make some changes for the better. She had been frustrated by the lack of a consistent approach and saw that there were some obvious areas that could be improved.

Julie’s first step was to organize a workshop with key members of each discipline within the delivery team. At the workshop, Julie stated that her goal in taking on her new role was to improve the approach to conducting R&A. The objective of the workshop was to establish what current processes/practices were effective, which needed improvement, and where there was anything missing. The workshop went well and proved to be a valuable exercise in getting buy-in from other staff. There was a clearly stated goal, and it had been communicated to key people within the organization.

The findings of the workshop were compiled and resulted in a plan of action. Julie did not ask permission from the delivery manager or from the members of the team. The fact that a goal was stated based on a group consensus was enough. The team was happy to support Julie and any work that led toward the goal. The three elements of leadership had fallen into place.

The action plan was put into effect. The team worked to standardize documentation and techniques, implemented peer reviews, looked at ways of better utilizing existing tools, and provided guidance and support during projects when questions or issues arose. The overall quality of work improved, and there was a definite sense of optimism.

The fact that the culture of the business was focused on sales meant that actions within the delivery team weren’t scrutinized. The CEO didn’t care what was going on there, and there were no norms or practices to prevent Julie from implementing changes. In an odd way, it was an ideal environment in which to lead — or so it appeared. Within a particular department there was free rein, unless it got in the way of making a sale.

Julie’s Hands Are Tied

And “get in the way” it did. Eager to make a sale, the sales manager told a particular client that research and analysis on their project could be done in a week in order to meet their desired deadline. In saying this, he was ignoring Julie’s advice that the implementation in question would require four weeks of R&A. It didn’t matter that previous experience showed that rushing analysis would result in delays during the implementation as the details were worked out. This in turn would make the project run later than if the R&A had been done upfront. In the blink of an eye, months of Julie’s hard work to create a standard approach were promptly ignored in favor of doing whatever was needed to make a sale.

In such a situation, Julie had no recourse. There was no point going to the CEO, since he cared more about sales than doing things well. There were no norms to prevent the sales manager from ignoring Julie’s advice. There were no formal practices for checking estimates before they were presented to the client. The same culture that gave Julie the freedom to make improvements could ignore them if they stood in the way of making a sale.

In an odd way, it was an ideal environment in which to lead, or so it appeared. In this company, effective leadership wasn’t possible unless the goal was to make more sales.

There was a form of glass ceiling when it came to leadership in the company. It could be exercised within a team and to a certain degree on projects, but it could not span across more than one team and definitely couldn’t be raised to a higher level. The idea of collaborating together to improve how we worked, or working toward a common goal or vision, couldn’t exist in a culture where the priority was making a sale. Ultimately the culture squelched leadership. It made it impossible to achieve all three leadership elements because it prevented would-be leaders from exerting influence beyond a small number of people and thwarted the creation of a common goal. As a result, the final element of followers wanting to work toward the common goal could never happen.

In Better Hands

Fortunately this is not the end of the story. The company was eventually acquired by a larger rival and a new CEO was installed. The new CEO had a much different take on how things should be done. The first thing that changed was the key value of making a sale. Sales were still important, but they could not be made if they didn’t have a set profit margin built in. This immediately shifted the key value from sales to profit. At the time it didn’t seem like a significant change, but it had a flow-on effect to both the existing norms and practices within the business.

A new practice was introduced. Everyone had to account for his or her time. Any effort not attributed to a client project was frowned upon. This new practice significantly affected the norms. Suddenly the veil was lifted, and many people found that they had to explain themselves. Behavior that previously would have been condoned was no longer acceptable. Other practices were introduced that reinforced the core value of profitability. Weekly reviews of projects were implemented with the focus on their profitability.

Suddenly the landscape was different. The values had changed, practices had been introduced to support the values, and behavior that previously was tolerated was now being scrutinized. The culture had changed.

Julie Takes Things in Hand

Around the same time, changes started to happen within the delivery team. Julie was moved from heading up research and analysis to project delivery. As she did with R&A, her first step was to establish the areas that worked well and what needed improvement. One of the main concerns that surfaced was the lack of involvement in defining project plans as a part of the presales process. Previously, project managers had little or no involvement in the presales effort. Project plans were created based on the effort provided by each of the disciplines with a standard loading added for project management. Not surprisingly, the project plans were often unrealistic.

Julie organized a meeting between sales and project management. The goal of the meeting was to discuss how project managers could be involved in presales to ensure that project plans were either created by a project manager or at least reviewed before being presented to a potential client. The main reason was to make certain the projects would be profitable and could be delivered on time.

In the previous environment, there was no way such a meeting would happen. The sales team would refuse to cooperate, and the previous CEO would not have intervened. Now there was no resistance; the reasoning was accepted and understood. Julie was able to review the project plan for the next bid and made extensive changes to ensure the plan was realistic. This has since become common practice.

Because of the change in values, Julie was able to exercise influence, define a common goal, and get followers to take action to help achieve that goal. She was able to lead and have a greater impact in a shorter time and with less effort than she had with her previous team. Her leadership abilities hadn’t changed, nor had most of the staff — but the culture had. That’s what allowed Julie to lead the way when previously she was only able to make limited progress.


In perfect circumstances, with a culture that has the right values, norms, and practices, it’s still not easy to be a leader. There are many challenges that would-be leaders face: you have to understand how to deal with people, define goals that will unite, and foster energy and dedication toward a brighter and better future. But even the most talented of leaders will achieve little if the culture doesn’t allow them to influence people to work toward a common goal. Just as nothing exists in a vacuum, leadership cannot exist in the wrong culture.


  1. Bryce, Tim. “Bryce’s Laws.” M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) (
  2. Balogun, Julia, and Veronica Hope Hailey. Exploring Strategic Change. 2nd edition. Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2004.
  3. Schein, Edgar H. “What You Need to Know About Organizational Culture.” Training & Development Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1, January 1986.
  4. Higgins, James M., Craig Mcallaster, Samuel C. Certo, and James P. Gilbert. “Using Cultural Artifacts to Change and Perpetuate Strategy.” Journal of Change Management, Vol. 6, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 397-415.
  5. Winston, Bruce E., and Kathleen Patterson. “An Integrative Definition of Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006, pp. 6-66.