Companies often confuse leadership styles with corporate culture. While the corporate culture of a company often can be influenced by its leadership (the smaller the company, the more likely this is to be true), following the culture is how things get done. The values, customs, traditions and meanings practiced by the company, combined with its processes and systems, constitute a corporate culture. Within that framework, individual leadership style influences the motivation of individuals and departments.

Collective Behavior and Shared Values

The tangible elements of a corporate culture can include a company's routines, stories and symbols; its outward facing organizational structure and its hidden power structure. Culture can include what it says outwardly, but also what the company really means when it says it.

While it is common practice for companies to share their vision and mission with employees, this does not mean that all do an equal job of explaining what they mean. Some corporate cultures can be outward-looking and open, sharing much more about how they plan to reach their goals. Others are more secretive and operate on a need-to-know basis.

Formal or Informal Culture

Corporate culture is unique to each company. Two companies in the same industry can have very different cultures.

Both IBM and Sun Microsystems manufacture computers and software. One is known as Big Blue, complete with a white-shirt-and-tie image. The other is California casual. One's historically regimented organization and sheer scale gets the job done, while the other's entrepreneurial, innovative solutions regularly amaze its customers. Both have been highly successful because each company and its employees share an energy of related values and common business behaviors.

Corporate Culture as an Obstacle

A company that says it values its people, then lays them off and has them and their belongings escorted off the premises by guards, is not nearly as sensitive to the feelings of its staff as it would have people believe.

Defining the culture of a new company and identifying how to fit into that culture is one of the most difficult things for an executive to do. Sometimes that's because the company states publicly that it is one kind of company, but acts internally in a way that belies its words.

A new manager might be told that the company strongly endorses a team approach to process improvement. However, he quickly discovers that any suggestions are ignored or put down. Or the company might say that it promotes from within, but any time a senior position opens up, the job goes to an outside recruit.

Meshing Leadership Styles With Corporate Culture

Strong leadership is required to align a corporate culture with an organization's strategy, especially if that strategy is a significant shift from the way things have been done. Risk-averse companies that set the goal to become innovative and nimble have to be taught an entrepreneurial culture.

Entrepreneurial in a Command-and-Control company

The primary leadership style in our society is what is called "command-and-control." It's accepted because it's efficient. Once workers learn skills, they generally repeat them and over time can come to resist change. This style is prevalent in large companies.

The opposite style, "leadership by worker responsibility," motivates people to thrive on challenge and change. This is precisely the environment cultivated in start-up and entrepreneurial environments.

While it is possible to be an entrepreneurial, mid-level leader within a regimented environment, it is not easy. To survive, the leader adopts a dual style: managing up as a line-skill manager and managing down as a motivational challenger, encouraging risk-taking and new skill acquisition.

Leading by Motivation

A good leader uses more than one leadership style, depending on individual situations. Staff assessment is necessary to identify what style best motivates each worker. One employee might be completely self-motivated and independent and need minimal supervision. He is motivated by opportunities to be creative and can be highly productive. Another employee longs to find solutions and make decisions, is team-motivated and thrives on democratic discussion, change and responsibility.

Still others might be motivated by goals and opportunity, by rewards and material prompts, or recognition and social status. Managing these employees requires skill in creating a work environment that provides enough motivational “honey” to keep them buzzing toward the corporate goals.