A Leader’s role in Forming and Transforming Culture


If you are asked to describe your leadership approach, you might think of yourself as typically possessing one style. But we often find ourselves using multiple styles based on the circumstances surrounding us. One of my favorite categorizations is from the Wall Street journal, which defines the following styles: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Pace setting and Commanding. Leadership approach is often what helps define a company’s culture.
My refresher course in emotional intelligence last week was a great reminder on how much emotional intelligence plays a part in modifying your leadership style – as emotional intelligence is not just about reading other people, it is also understanding how you feel in a situation and managing your interactions and leadership moments well.

When we formed our company last year, we knew we had the right founding team because the debate on our core values felt just right. We defined values based on our past work and personal experiences, extrapolated for the future – what really mattered to us, what worked and did not work for us, where we wanted to grow as human beings, what kind of company culture did we want to create and be in 5 months, 5 years, 5 decades from now.
As we started forming our culture in actions and interactions, the leadership style that we tapped into was Affiliative as well as Democratic.

Affiliative is all about team work, creating harmony in our team, increase communication and creating trust in the organization. We also relied on Democratic style drawing on other people’s knowledge and skills, creating a group commitment to the resulting goals. This was especially important as we navigated and pivoted our way into clarity for our engagement software product. These approaches are working very well as we create our culture as a new company.

Transforming culture is a different story, and the larger the company the harder it is to transform. The leadership needed for transformation might look a little different. If we look at two of the circumstances that precede the cultural transformation initiatives, it would be clear why.

1. Cultural transformation to Survive: A company is doing poorly and they need to change to survive.
2. Cultural transformation to Re-invent: A company’s is enjoying the fruits of its collective labor after years of doing the right things and a disruptor is at their door step. Now they need to change or be disrupted.

Survival focused Transformation

We have been in these situations before where a perfect storm or opportunity or disaster hits and we have only one option. Sink or Swim. Thinking back on my own experience in the financial crisis where the foundations were cracking in the banking industry and the ensuing mess resulted in strict regulations,

the banks needed to change operations fast to ensure that every customer interaction is squeaky clean in both intention and execution

It is hard for employees to be receptive in this scenario because they are already beat down after months and years of cost cutting, layoffs and bad news. A lot of them have already moved on, the ones remaining are left to pick up the increasing amount of work and they are too overwhelmed to think straight.

In this situation a combination of Commanding, Pace setting and Democratic leadership could work really well.

Commanding involves short term blocking and tackling to get the organization to where it needs to get to and then Pacesetting to expect high standards from everyone. These styles cannot last very long though.

Steadying the morale of the employees and getting them focused on the task at hand and being honest about causes without finger pointing and getting to work on the fixing part of it is how a leader can really turn things around. Then using Democratic style to draw upon people’s skills to figure out ways to create smarter processes to get out the fire fighting mode and then eventually looking at the business beyond the current crisis could create the right outcome.

Re-invention focused Transformation

We have heard of countless examples of companies that experiences resounding success who were disrupted out of their mantle. Blockbuster and Kodak are some of the examples of these. These companies were blindsided by their own success.

Typically when a disruptor shows up, the first response is denial, then double down on things that made the company’s successful to begin with and churn the cycles faster. It is hard to argue with success and to self reflect when we are enjoying success based on our behaviors. But these are exactly the times where we do need to take a look at ourselves and what is out there in the market place to see what we are missing.

Visionary leadership combined with Coaching would work perfectly in these scenarios.

Vision moves people towards a new set of shared dreams.

Starting a group of people to explore new things, looking out in the market place for what is out there in parallel industries, coaching and encouraging people to have some free time to experiment things on their own and explore are strategies to come out of the situation. Adopting the strategy of disrupt or you will be disrupted.

Leadership styles have the ability for form and transform company cultures. One thing is for certain, as with civilizations, company cultures have to evolve with times to stay healthy and vibrant. Leaders have a big part to play to guiding their organizations through changes.




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