Organizational culture is an important driver of any business. Unfortunately, culture is often perceived as some vague organizational presence, typically personalized in the chief executive, business owner or founder. Culture is much more.

You are more than your hair, skin color, gender, height, shape, family lineage, geographic location and many other facets that distinguish you as a whole person. Similarly, the culture of an organization or a town is something whole and complete, always shifting and changing as the context and the people within the organization change.

Changes are happening on a global scale and require us to pay more attention to precisely what is the culture of our businesses. The shift taking place in organizational cultures is not incremental, but transformational. The mechanistic culture of the Industrial Age (think Henry Ford) defined the culture of most businesses over the past century. Today, a more organic culture based on human interaction is emerging. Australian futurist Ross Dawson distills this development in his Transformation of Business framework. He sees the following driving a rich diversity of business change and redefining organization success for the decades ahead:

  • Flexible organizational structures
  • Distributed innovation
  • Tapping talent
  • Dynamic strategy
  • Scalable relationships
  • Governance for transformation

People and the changes that they bring to their work in organizations fuel these drivers.

What Motivates Excellence at Work

Online shoe and clothing retailer is one of many businesses that have figured out how to engage its employees so that they want to give their best to their work. The company’s culture book (free for the asking at offers page after page of brief stories by employees sharing their love and commitment to Zappos. The culture of work that the company has achieved suggests the kind of change that is possible.

In the 2010 Zappos Culture book, CEO Tony Hsieh explains the Zappos culture:

“For us, our #1 priority is company culture. Our belief is that if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like delivering great customer service, or building a long-term enduring brand and business – will happen naturally on its own. … So, what is Zappos culture? To me, the Zappos culture embodies many different elements.  It’s about always looking for new ways to WOW everyone we come in contact with. It’s about building relationships where we treat each other like family. It’s about teamwork and having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s about growth, both personal and professional. It’s about achieving the impossible with fewer people. It’s about openness, taking risks, and not being afraid to make mistakes. But most of all, it’s about having faith that if we do the right thing, then, in the long run, we will succeed and build something great.”

Tony Hsieh understands what Daniel Pink describes in his 2011 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink sees that people today are not motivated to excellence in their life or work solely by financial rewards or fear of punishment. Instead, three personal factors are the key motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The Two Levers for A New Kind of Corporate Culture

At a deeper level, organizational culture is a values structure. Among institutions, non-profits and companies focused on purpose and mission, respect, trust, openness and mutual reciprocity, the values structure of their culture is evident.

Two levers describe this human-centered system, providing energy and strength to the system. One is self-leadership and the other, a Community of Leaders, is the functioning of the organization.


The idea that leaders control and the rest follow served as the foundation for the old industrial model of leadership. That worked when followers lacked education and training, and business systems were relatively simple and predictable. Today, nothing is simple, and the complexity of organizational systems is such that talent has become an important differentiator between businesses.  Talented people need development and the right culture to be able to reach their potential.

These changes also mean that each employee has greater responsibility for their work than ever before. That responsibility is carried out through their own personal initiative.

Personal initiative is the origin of all leadership. Without it, nothing begins or is sustained. In the past, this initiative came from a small, select group of people in positions of leadership. Now, leadership is less a role and more the way a person conducts themselves within the culture of the company.

Personal initiative is a product of self-leadership. It comes from you, the individual. It is that expression of inner motivation that turns a person who is only there to do the job assigned into a person who is a creator and contributor to the developing success of the company.

Where does this drive for personal initiative – to be a leader – come from? It begins with values.

Push from your mind those not-so-subtle generic reminders to do your best hung on restroom walls and in the corridors of corporate offices. Rather, the values I refer to are personal ones that transcend the individual and form a basis for collaboration.

Zappos employee Darrin S. in the company’s culture book describes the kind of values I mean this way:

“One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received was, ‘Surround yourself with people that make you want to be your best self.’

My Interpretation of best-self is this:

– Purpose greater than one’s own personal interests.

– Fear of stagnation

– The relentless quest for the truth in decision making.

– A thrill for the unknown when the right answer is difficult to determine.

– Trust in the effort of others.

– Genuine desire to watch others succeed.

Zappos has a high concentration of people with these values and the Zappos Culture is a product of these people.”

People like Darren are self-motivated to lead from their individual placement within the company’s structure. They look for ways to contribute, to innovate, and to create an impact that matters. Grow a company filled with people like Darren and you transform the company into a culture of committed contributors.

Community of Leaders

The definition of a Community of Leaders is an organizational culture in which self-leadership is widespread. The organization is more than a collection of self-led people. It nurtures and encourages an emergent culture where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The key change is relational and social.

Two experiences inform my understanding of the phrase “community of leaders.” The first experience centered on a project in which performance issues initiated at the lower level of the company’s structure were passed up the line until it reached the head of the business unit. A dispute between two people, spurred by the performance of one person, changed as the issue escalated and grew into a dispute between the union and the company.  It revealed a culture problem. Managers and supervisors avoided taking responsibility because of a culture of mistrust.

The second experience involved the tour of a local hospital in which I had the opportunity to meet and dialog with department heads and floor leaders, changing my opinion of the organization as a result. I found middle-tier leaders who not only had a tactical and technical grasp of their specific area of responsibility but also possessed a strategic grasp of the region’s healthcare issues and an understanding of how the hospital was positioned to meet them.

As I describe above, a culture that avoids responsibility is not a culture where the relationships function well. Lack of respect and trust in any social system is sclerotic, creating an environment that is rigid, unresponsive and unable to adapt.

Many times, I have participated in planning meetings and the group pushes for greater accountability, rather than greater trust.  In effect, they are looking for scapegoats to blame in the event of poor performance.  Scapegoating is a symptom of a failing culture.  If people are not willing to take initiative, to build open, respectful relationships, then something is wrong.

The social/relational dimension of an organization is not a secondary concern when it comes to leadership, it is the connectional, the ligament, the glue of the system.

In an organization driven by a community of leaders, self-led members contribute through the leadership of their own personal initiative to build relationships of respect and trust. For you to achieve this organizational change, you have to think differently about how your company can be a community.

There is the formal structure of departments, business units, and process. And then there is the informal structure of relationships. It is this latter structure that needs development in most organizations. It is developed by creating a culture of respect and trust.

Your Blueprint for Leadership Culture Creation

What can an executive leader of a company do to create a community of leadership culture?

First, YOU cannot create it. WE have to create it.

It cannot be controlled or mandated. It must be permitted to happen. There must be openness and freedom for people to take initiative to create the social environment that allows them to show up like Darren S. of Zappos to be their best every day. All you can do is support and facilitate, and most importantly, join them as a co-participant.

Second, you have to understand what people want.

  1. People want their lives and work to be Personally Meaningful.  In other words, there are ideas, values, a sense of purpose or personal calling that they want to express in the way they spend every day.  Work is personal and becomes professional as it defines and guides their relationship to the company. The more a person’s core values are in sync with his or her work and aligned with the company’s mission, the more significant the workplace becomes a place to invest oneself in high endeavors and excellence in performance.
  1. People want their lives and work to be Socially Fulfilling.  They want their relationships to be whole and healthy, for respect, trust, and openness to be valued and practiced in the workplace. This desire is about more than functioning well within a project team or a business unit. Unfulfilled desire informs the cynicism and fears prevalent in so many organizations. Better work results from relationships of trust and respect.
  1. People also want their lives and work to Make a Difference that Matters.  This desire extends beyond being successful or having a fun.  People want to see the product of their effort at work creating a lasting benefit for their customers and clients.  The sense of accomplishment that comes when one’s mission or their company’s mission is fulfilled through their contributions is what I identify in people. To Make a Difference that Matters is to create change.

Third, you have to be an example. If you are, then people will follow you. Deeds are much more important than words. If you are starting from square one, then let me suggest you take on developing the Five Actions of Gratitude as a discipline of relationship building within your company.

The Five Actions of Gratitude are five strategic actions that elevate collaborative work as an organizational asset.


Take These Next Steps

What I have found is that the greatest change happens within us. The world’s needs are not as insurmountable as our own fear and reticence to change.  It may be part ego, but what I find more often is that it is our lack of confidence in being able to succeed.

To take these three steps:

  1. Let go. Let a community of leadership culture to develop.
  2. Facilitate the development of a corporate culture that understands what people want. Allow for people to find their life and work to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and To Make a Difference That Matters.
  3. Make the Five Actions of Gratitude the basis of your personal and professional relationships. Leverage it to initiate a process of personal change that creates the opportunity for others to join you.  As a result, a cultural change will take place that will release the unrealized potential that resides in every company.

People are the levers of strength and change in organizations. Encourage their self-leadership and the result is a community of leaders. This is the future, possibly the only future that we have.

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