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Strategic Leaders

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Strategic Leaders

One of the primary responsibilities of strategic leaders is to create and maintain the organizational characteristics that reward and encourage collective effort. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is organizational culture. But what do we really mean by organizational culture? What influence does it have on an organization? How does one go about building, influencing or changing an organization's culture?

• What leaders pay attention to, measure and control. Something as simple as what is emphasized or measured, over time, can have an effect on an organization's culture. One example of this is an emphasis on form over substance. If leaders pay more attention to form, an organizational culture can develop where people start to believe that the substance of a recommendation is less important than the way it is presented.

• Leader reactions to critical incidents and organizational crises. The way leaders react to crises says a lot about the organization's values, norms and culture. Crises, by their nature, bring out the organization's underlying core values. Often, this is where rhetoric becomes apparent. Reactions to crises are normally highly visible, because everyone's attention is focused on the incident or situation. Disconnects between actions and words will usually be apparent, and actions always speak louder than words.

• Deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching. Nothing can take the place of leaders "walking their talk." The personal example of a strategic leader can send a powerful message to the members of an organization, particularly if it is ethical and consistent. Reinforcing that example with teaching and coaching will help others to internalize the desired values.

• Criteria for allocation of rewards and status. The consequences of behavior-what behavior is rewarded and what is punished-can significantly influence culture. If the organization reacts to new ideas by ridiculing the ideas and those who propose them, it won't take long before people believe that new ideas are not welcomed or desired. One belief of perceived organizational culture is reflected in the statement: "Don't raise questions or suggest improvements, because nothing will come of it and you will just get in trouble." If you were in an organization's strategic leader, what steps could you take to alter the reward system to change this aspect of the culture?

• Criteria for recruitment, selection, promotion, retirement and excommunication. One of the powerful ways of changing an organization's culture is through the type of people brought into, retained, and advanced in the organization. You should be able to establish a desired culture base in an organization by bringing in and advancing individuals with the values you want, and eliminating those with undesired value bases.

That is what organizations are attempting when they propose tightening up admissions standards to screen out undesirables. This strategy is consistent with the belief that the problems experienced by the organization result from a few "bad apples" and do not reflect systemic problems. However, if a strong culture bias exists, it may be too strong to be changed by selection alone.

The military academies are organizations which change over one fourth of their membership every year, which should provide an opportunity for changes to the organizational culture as new members are brought in. The catch, however, is that the socialization of those new members rests in the hands of those who are already part of the existing culture. How could the military academies make systemic culture changes not negated by the socialization process new members go through?

• Organizational design and structure. As we mentioned earlier, modifying the organization's basic structure may be a way of changing the existing norms, and hence the culture. For example, a culture of mistrust between the leaders and the members of an organization may be exacerbated by a "line" structure that discourages vertical communication.

• Organizational systems and procedures. The simplest definition of culture is "that's the way we do things around here." Routines or procedures can become so embedded that they become part of the culture, and changing the culture necessitates changing those routines. We can all think of organizations where a weekly or monthly meeting takes on a life of its own, becomes more formalized, lengthy, and elaborate, and becomes the only way information moves within the organization. Changing the culture to improve communication may only be possible by changing the meeting procedures or eliminating the meetings altogether.

• Design of physical space, facades, and buildings. The impact of the design of buildings on culture can easily be illustrated by considering

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