Transform Your Culture with Courageous Leadership

For many months, the board and CEO of your organization have been focused on a more generative and healthier balance of efficiency, velocity, flexibility, long-termism, sustainabla-bla-bla results, strengthening core yada-yada values, human capitabla-bla, clarity of purpose, and profit bla-bla-bla. (Even if you believe in these “buzz words,” we all recognize that they can be a trigger/distraction.)

The organization is doing a lot in the name of change with regard to strategy, vision, and business process. And your company has already invested millions in new product development/innovation, agile processes/structures, office design, change management protocol, new internal communication campaigns, and many town halls. You even built beautiful digital centers of excellence.

But still, transformation isn’t happening fast enough.

Meanwhile, new competitors are growing rapidly and creating a significant threat. Despite all the changes you’ve made, the market is telling you that you are not executing fast enough and the transformation is not happening deeply enough. Your brands and digital channels are growing X times slower than your competitors. Even your newer executives, hired from companies that were “born agile and digital,” are experiencing surprising difficulties and unexpected blockages from within the organization.

Transformation with a capital “T”

You strongly believe that the company culture is what’s causing the lag, drag, and counterproductive friction. Culture is unintentionally undermining the execution of your growth strategy. The organization is not moving forward in terms of the performance improvements expected by now. Your leadership team wants better results. They want you to Transform (with a capital “T”) your company’s culture into a courageous and adaptive, high-performance culture—one that is fully engaged, agile, creative, and collaborative…one that is more capable of digital-yadayada, customer-centribla-bla, etc.

“Transformation with a capital T, which we define as an intense, organization-wide program to enhance performance (an earnings improvement of 25 percent or more, for example) and to boost organizational health. When such transformations succeed, they radically improve the important business drivers, such as topline growth, capital productivity, cost efficiency, operational effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and sales excellence.”
– Bucy, Hall, and Yakola (McKinsey & Co.)

But does your organization have the courage to tackle Transformation with a capital “T”?

Transformation with a little “t”

When executives talk about being on board with “fixing” culture through transformation efforts, whether they are aware of it or not, they are likely talking about transformation with a little “t.” In the spirit of Bruce Lee, rather than being in such a hurry to fix it, we’re better off if we first focus on enriching our understanding of it. Most executive teams lack a shared language and understanding of this complex topic. Most HR and change management functions don’t have the expertise to best support the executive team with an effective orientation to the topic, let alone to help them make a conscious choice about committing (or not) to a strong plan to develop cultural empathy and lead the way.

Most executives are unaware of how unaware they are when it comes to leading Transformation and shaping culture. We are often unaware of our own contribution to the very thing we complain about. When it comes to the big “T,” we (leaders) are often the limiting factor. Many senior executives and their peers don’t really know how culture works from a socio-technical systems standpoint. Most don’t know the difference between organizational culture and climate. Most don’t have a clear understanding of the levers for change, the sequence of steps, the essential versus important, etc. Most don’t have experience experimenting with (and learning) emerging best practices in adult development.

The Socio-Technical System

You and your fellow leaders may say you want change, but only you know if you’re serious about the deep (identity) work of Transformation necessary to change individual and collective BE-ING levels. I believe it makes total sense if you’re not ready yet. I believe it depends on the business context and what is truly valued most. If your organization and leaders value control, obedience, and compliance to old norms, then it is a mistake to promise new standards of courage, collaboration, and creativity. It is a mistake to make promises about the big “T” when you are only ready for the little “t.”

“Most are not serious about change because it requires senior managers to change their behavior. You know how corporate bosses can be. This is not always a very welcome method. I’ve been kicked out of plenty of boardrooms.”
– Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

How do you know when you are ready?

Typically, readiness doesn’t come until you have suffered enough trying to fix it the old way – just focused on the doing and trying harder. Once you are dissatisfied enough with results you’ve been getting, then you are ready to consider expanding the goal beyond executing/DO-ING the little “t” and instead work on the big “T”—the BE-ING. Our biases/norms today cause us to react to change with a disproportionate reliance on the DO-ING (technical domains/hard skills, e.g., technology, behaviors) versus securing the path to value by also focusing on the BE-ING (human domains/soft skills, e.g., mindsets and identity). Devaluing serious attention on the human domain in favor of the technical has historically been the default protocol for most corporations. To succeed at the big “T,” we need both at full strength. We need to upgrade both.

The enemies of courage

Many executive teams approach culture change with the wrong mindset and a limited set of tools. Few ever get to the real work of Transformation. We often hear root-cause explanations for why it’s so hard that sound more like blame-centric perspectives and worldviews, suggesting that specific people (e.g., millennials, old-timers) who “just don’t get it” make the culture work difficult. Blame, drama, and lack of trust are the enemies of rapid adaptation and courage. Many of us get too caught up in the drama of focusing on who or what to blame for the lack of progress.

This response is a reflection of the current culture. The culture is a reflection of the current (and past) leadership. This tendency for blame and persecution will only stifle improvement and learning and development efforts and make change even harder. I like to say, if it’s hard for you…then chances are you’re doing it wrong. There is a much more effective response available when the team is ready for it.

Courage is a team sport

It’s good that you are courageous. Unfortunately, courage doesn’t scale from an individual act. Courage is a group behavior. Individual heroics are distracting and represent a very misguided storyline when it comes to building a courageous culture. The reality is that most courageous individuals often appear less courageous when they are working in a low-trust environment. Lencioni’s work showed us that when the environment is lacking trust, the consequence is a paralyzing sense of “bystander-ing” that occurs from fear (of conflict, speaking up, making mistakes), lack of commitment, etc.

Usually, at least one leadership team member (avoiding ownership of the trust issue altogether) will say something out of desperation to bring the focus back to courage, like:

“I just want courageous people who will try new things and charge up the hill on their own; I want generals, not soldiers waiting for me to tell them what to do. They should know what to do by now. They’re either soft, they’re lazy, they don’t care, or they don’t get it. People need to know we are serious about this transformation. Maybe we should fire some of the cowardly people to make the rest move faster.”

The overwhelming majority of your employees aren’t lazy and they aren’t cowardly. They aren’t stuck; employees do get it. Your employees are delivering on exactly what your leaders and system still value most. They are actually delivering on the current, unwritten norms of the culture. Inside an organization, courage is not something you DO alone.

As the existential, humanistic psychologist/philosopher Rollo Reese May famously said (alongside Viktor Frankl and other major proponents of existential psychotherapy):

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice; it is conformity.”

Courage, like conformity, has to be the group’s agreed-upon way of BE-ING—a group identity—for it to be scalable and sustainable. We have to learn to make courage an act of conformity—not an act of valor.

How do we make courage a cultural act of conformity?

Psychological safety is the answer, according to Amy Edmondson’s research from Harvard. Her work illustrates how great performers who find themselves in fear-based, Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive cultures will likely behave like they are afraid to make mistakes and therefore don’t take risks and don’t pursue learning new things as energetically (or on as widespread a basis) as top performers in courageous cultures. The same employees, once they transfer out of the fear-based environment into a Constructive culture, will behave courageously in the face of new challenges and changing circumstances.

The same goes for adaptability and agility. Most organizations learn, in the long run, that it is not simply about DO-ING courageous and agile stuff; it is about BE-ING courageous and agile. Transformation with a big “T” is a team sport. Transformation happens more quickly and more deeply in community. Culture is the visible and invisible norms (e.g., systems, symbols, behaviors) of our community. Culture is about learning what it takes to fit in—beyond the poster on the wall and the verbal and nonverbal messages.

BE-ING curious, clear, and consistent

Culture is about decoding the way we get stuff done successfully around here—historically, currently, and ideally. Leaders have to be crystal clear, aligned, and exquisitely consistent about their approach to and curiosity about exploring those gaps.

Clarifying the Gap - Current vs. Ideal Norms Example

Leaders need a reliable, MRI level of detailed visibility into the invisible components of culture (and a simple model) to understand and discuss where you are currently as a culture—and where you want to be in the near future. You need to see clearly where you have anomalies of ideal culture success and current culture gaps. To have an effective culture strategy, you can’t afford to use anecdotes or guess about the gap to be closed. It is easy to check. “Check” means the expert use of qualitative and quantitative tools. “Check” also means ask. Just ask. And your openness to receive the answers matters. Culture isn’t declarative; it’s interrogative.

Here’s a line of questioning that I use to check on the awareness, urgency, and alignment of executive teams involved in both the big “T” and little “t” imperatives:

  1. Progress. How’s it going? What are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about? How are you feeling about the transformation?
  2. Goals. What is the business reason/goal for this transformation? What are the key metrics used to measure degrees of success in the execution of this transformation?
  3. Consequences. What are the business consequences of not transforming successfully? On a scale of 1 to 10, how important/urgent is this? What if you don’t intervene and people just do (think, relate, act) as they have been doing to date?
  4. Ideal State. Do the executives who make up the leadership team have clarity about the ideal culture (vision) you are transforming to? Imagine if you woke up a year from now and found that the vision has come true and your goals have been accomplished. What does that look like? When culture change has taken hold, it makes it a lot easier and more likely to achieve your industry-leading/pioneering performance-level goals. How can you tell? What does that look/feel like? What is different? What are some key habits and areas of mastery that you are excited about? What are people inside and outside your company saying about it?
  5. Current State. Compared to this ideal, what is missing in the current situation? Do these executives have clarity about the current culture and where you are now? Do you have individual and collective diagnostic tools? From your perspective, how do people need to perform differently in the next X years in order to transform?
  6. Culture Plan. Do the executives agree on the gap to close? Do they agree on the plan, priority, and sequence to close it? What have you done already? What is keeping you from closing the gap and shifting to the ideal culture? What are the identified blockers/obstacles?
  7. Personal Impact. Why did you raise your hand for this? What matters the most to you? Why? What happens to you (personally) if you don’t accomplish the vision? What happens to the council?
  8. Understanding. Does the leadership team have clarity, shared language, and understanding about how culture evolves and the impact of history on the current state? Have they identified causal factors (e.g., systems, structures) that are part of the work climate? Do they understand how they reinforce and shape the current culture and what may be levers for change in improvement plans?
  9. Shared Learning. How well does the leadership team embody the ideal cultural attributes? How are they being supported? Are they first going to create a shared learning environment for both the technical and human dimensions of change?
  10. Organizational Impact. How many people in the organization, beyond the leadership team, are being impacted by the transformation?

I am always reminded that we (leaders) have a lot to learn about the complexity of culture change efforts and the impact our own leadership has on keeping the status quo (traditions) in place—despite our intentions to lead change. Perhaps with conversations like these, more leaders can begin to see how it makes sense that our people are stuck and confused about what to do with regard to culture change because we (the leaders) are stuck and confused, too. Usually, that sparks an environment or energy that is more ready than ever to learn how to shift culture more quickly and sustainably.

Courageous culture is a lifestyle choice

We can’t become courageous just by deciding to do so any more than we can become healthy just by deciding to do so. Deciding isn’t the same as being. If everyone could just be the better, more effective versions of ourselves, we would. We would all eat healthy, exercise, meditate, and stop engaging in the old, counterproductive habits that trip us up. We aren’t lazy, apathetic, or lacking discipline or willpower. We all have competing priorities—some we aren’t even consciously aware of. We are all at our own current level working on our own next level. We are all somewhat socially defined and self-authoring. We are all social beings. We all need to fit in. Courage is a group behavior and a way of working and BE-ING together. A courageous culture unleashes and amplifies our courage—it expands our capability to learn and adapt.

To win today, high-velocity organizations need to fuel unprecedented learning, awareness, people development, cognitive flexibility, complex problem solving, and impeccable coordination of action—all at scale. To sustain it at scale, we need to build deliberately developmental cultures (mutual learning environments vs. unilateral control) that foster safety, courage, high trust, high engagement, productive conflict, healthy debate, mutual accountability, and a focus on results.

How will you help your organization become the kind of culture that is even more courageous, adaptive, and agile? We (collectively) have to work on becoming that kind of culture over time—building an environment where diverse human beings can bring 110% of their grit, energy, intelligence, creativity, and courage to bear on the increased challenges that face us all. We’re all always working on culture—we’re either helping it become more adaptive and courageous or we’re unintentionally keeping it stuck.

Editor’s Note: The Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive cultural styles discussed here are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics. The current and ideal norms describing these styles are survey items from the Organizational Culture Inventory (copyright 1987) and are used by the author with permission.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from