The Role of Culture in Leadership

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Leadership styles can make or break an organization. A manager who energizes and inspires builds a workplace culture where employees want to do their best, while a manager who constantly critiques creates an environment where employees can't wait to go home. Leaders are instrumental in setting a tone for workplace culture, but they also do their work in a larger context and are influenced by existing culture in turn.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Workplace culture is the backdrop against which leaders motivate or discourage employees.

What Is Company Culture?

A workplace is a community that is created over time via intentional and unintentional steps. A business that is founded with a clear objective, such as earning as much money as possible or making the world a better place, will naturally attract and support people who are practically and emotionally capable of furthering these goals. Employees will thrive when their skills and values sync with those of their workplace, and they will either grow disgruntled or move on if the company's style and values do not suit them.

A company's culture can also be created unintentionally, and the very fact that there has been no conscious effort to build a culture or communicate a vision may lead to a workplace where efforts aren't coordinated and workers feel frustrated. When workers aren't clear about what leadership expects from them, they have no clear parameters for assessing success and failure. They are likely to come to work just for a paycheck rather than also enjoying the satisfaction and meaning that comes from creative collaboration, visible results and positive feedback.

Leadership and Culture in Organizations

Vision is essential to leadership because it provides the guiding principles that a leader is responsible for communicating. A successful and inspirational leader will use a larger vision to organize and inspire a team to work together toward a shared goal. Leaders are also instrumental in establishing and reinforcing an organization's values, which are central to its culture. Any employee can influence a workplace environment through a positive or negative attitude, but a leader's energy will have a disproportionate influence about how people feel about coming to work and how they operate once they get there.

Some organizations have a culture in place that can support leaders as they build leadership skills. Such a culture might be built on an articulated emphasis on the importance of learning and also a willingness to provide the necessary training. In addition, company culture will likely determine whether upper management chooses leaders thoughtfully and intentionally, looking for personality traits that will in turn reinforce this culture, or whether the hiring process is simply based on nepotism or convenience.

A thoughtful and intentional hiring process will attract leaders who communicate and inspire, while a shoddy process will likely yield ineffective leaders who reinforce a culture that isn't geared toward bringing out the best in either managers or employees.

The Importance of Personality

While approaches to company culture can either overlook ineffective leadership or support the development of fine leaders, the personalities of the people who take the lead are also instrumental in company culture. Some people are natural leaders with an innate feel for energizing staff and coordinating the efforts of a team.

Other leaders should never have been leaders in the first place but may have landed in management positions because of deep technical knowledge or long-term tenure. A leader lacking the personality for effective leadership can generate a company culture where employees lack both direction and inspiration.

Culture and Leadership Theory

There is an entire body of knowledge dedicated to studying and analyzing the ways that culture and leadership mutually influence one another. Different leadership styles yield divergent results.

About Servant Leadership

A company whose culture supports a servant approach to leadership honors employees enough to articulate that it is the role of the manager to support them in their personal and professional development. The culture of a company that favors servant leadership styles will foster trust and encourage learning and autonomy at all levels of the organization.

About Authoritative Leadership

This top-down management style relies on a hierarchy in which management has the power to make decisions, and employees are mainly responsible for doing as they are told. A workplace that favors an authoritative leadership style will most likely frown on collaboration either between employees or between people occupying different rungs of the corporate ladder.

About Participative Leadership

This approach to management aims to build consensus among an entire team rather than relying on the decisions of a single leader. The leader is part of the team but one with the special role of making the final decision and providing perspective that other team members may not yet have. A workplace that embraces a participative leadership style cultivates a culture of broad-based knowledge and democratic participation.

About Directive Leadership

Although it is similar to authoritative leadership in that decisions and direction primarily come from the management level of the organization, directive leadership uses the management perspective as a guide rather than to command. An organization that practices directive leadership balances the respect and trust typical of approaches such as servant and participative leadership with the clarity and focus that comes with centralized decision making.

About Transformational Leadership

This approach to management is self-reflective and geared toward ongoing improvement. An orientation toward ongoing improvement embodies humility at the management level, acknowledging that no matter how much you know, you can always learn more. Transformational leadership fosters a culture of inspiration in which employees believe in their company and their work. They are motivated, engaged and invested in their personal contributions to realizing a larger goal.

Cultural Benefits of Leadership Styles

Soft and supportive leadership styles such as the servant, participative and transformational approaches offer the advantage of creating a company culture based on collaboration and goodwill. Employees feel like their work and their voices are valued, and they go the extra mile to make the kinds of contributions that will leave their mark and make them proud. Employees and managers feel like they are part of the same team, playing on the same side.

An authoritarian leadership style provides clear direction. Employees are able to effectively get on the same page because there is someone clearly laying out the team's overall direction. Directive leadership similarly unifies efforts in pursuit of a clearly articulated goal, doing so in a way that also brings together the strengths of the softer, friendlier leadership style.

The culture of a company that follows an authoritarian or directive leadership style will likely be more focused on results rather than process, which is an advantage when there are time constraints.

Cultural Disadvantages of Leadership Styles

Leadership styles that balance the voice of the manager with the input of the employees sometimes interfere with productivity and focused progress. If everyone's voice matters, it may be hard to distinguish between wisdom and frivolity. This can create a culture of chaos where people in the know have trouble effectively communicating their perspectives.

A top-down leadership style such as an authoritarian approach can interfere with employee motivation because workers get the message that their opinions and insights don't count. This can create a workplace culture of disengagement and contributing no more than is absolutely necessary.

References

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.