In the last post on leadership essentials, the case was made that all organizations need five essentials from their leaders: a strong ethical compass; careful stewardship; attention to an organization’s culture; curiosity; and, courage. In the first post we explored a strong ethical compass and careful stewardship. In this post, we’ll look at the remaining three: attention to an organization’s culture; curiosity; and, courage.
3. Attention to an organization’s culture
‘Organizational culture’ is one of those phrases that everyone recognizes and yet there is no one agreed upon definition that is universally recognized. So here we have to acknowledge Aristotle’s wisdom that we can intelligently engage with each other only when we define our terms. So, for our purposes, we’ll define organizational culture following the lead of Edgar Schein (who, from my point of view, is the best thinker I’ve ever encountered on the subject and whose book Organizational Culture and Leadership is in its 5th edition … 5th edition!).
Culture is the deepest level of basic assumptions and beliefs shared by members of an organization … [culture] unconsciously defines in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization’s view of its self and its environment.
If culture is what we ‘unconsciously take for granted’ in organizations, then the real work of leadership is making the unconscious conscious. A sure sign that a leader is paying close attention to the organization’s culture is by asking ‘how?’ questions, instead of making ‘how!’ statements. For example, “How do we make decisions in this organization?” Or similarly, “How does who is involved in decision making affect the quality of our decision making?”
It follows that curiosity would be the precondition for asking ‘how?’ questions, but in many respects curiosity is the engine that drives good leadership in the other four essentials. Curiosity would drive us to explore our ethical compass, to make sure it was calibrated to true north. Curiosity would push us to ask, “How would I know I was stewarding the organization’s reputation well and truly?
What measures would indicate as much? Curiosity would force a leader to ask the incredibly hard question, “What do we take for granted in this organization? And should we question that ‘taken for grantedness’?” [In fact, Edgar Schein argues persuasively in Organizational Culture and Leadership that the only critically important function of leadership is to: create, maintain, and destroy culture!]
Finally, curiosity is indispensable to courage, for how else could we learn to understand and not be bullied by what we fear?
If you are familiar with Brene Brown, at the University of Houston, you will recognize much that is written below. If you are not familiar with her, I would encourage you to watch her two TED talks (‘The Power of Vulnerability’ and ‘Listening to Shame’) and to read her books, especially Daring Greatly.
As we’ve seen before, etymology can be helpful in thinking about leadership and its relationship to courage. The modern English word ‘courage’ comes from the Middle English word corag, which derives from the Old French cuer, which can be traced back to the Latin cor, for ‘heart’. Courage, then, is a matter of the ‘heart’.
So, courage is a matter of the heart … and what on earth does that actually mean?
Here I have an image in mind of a leader’s posture or stance toward the world:
One way to lead is with our heads down, in a protective kind of crouch, moving forward as through a gauntlet, buffeted by Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” In this posture or stance, leaders protect or guard their hearts, knowing that the heart is vulnerable. And in this view of leadership, to be vulnerable is to be weak.
A second way to lead is to stand upright, with our arms fully opened and stretched wide. To do so, of course, leaves us terribly vulnerable. But this kind of vulnerability is not an indication of weakness, but in fact a signal of extraordinary courage. It signals something like, “I have the courage to embrace the world, to embrace others, to embrace my fears, even though I may get wounded [the Latin for ‘wound’ or ‘wounded’ is vulnus, from which we get the English word vulnerability] in doing so.”
Perhaps the most important reason that organizations need courageous leaders, however, is that courage is contagious. And, of course, so is cowardice … the exact opposite of courage.