There’s an old saying in business, culture eats strategy for lunch. Many a leader has fallen victim to the decision to ignore a firm’s culture. Unfortunately, in this era of change, conditions sometimes necessitate shaking things up. My proposed revision is: sometimes leading means eating culture for lunch.


Optimizing for the Status Quo No Longer Works:

Many organizations and their management systems are designed to optimize around the status quo. If change occurs, it happens in slow, evolutionary steps. In these firms, the people in charge—the so-called leaders—preside over fiefdoms and play tug-of-war over resources. They are caretaker leaders focused on short-term results. While the idea of change is often given lip-service, it costs money, takes time and flies in the face of how people are evaluated and compensated.

Believe it or not, this style used to work not so long ago in many industries where stability was considered a virtue. Not so much now in a world where standing in the same place in the middle of a busy market guarantees you will be run over by more aggressive and agile competitors or disruptors.

Caretaker leaders no longer fit in our world where every incumbent has a big bullseye painted on its market position. We need leaders who lead…not leaders who simply talk.

These leaders gain support by appealing to the hearts and minds of the people in the organization. Click To Tweet

“New” Must Be Pursued Vigorously, Not Ignored:

I am regularly called out on my gross abuse of metaphors, particularly the one where I describe leadership today as the equivalent of a ship’s captain turning into the fog in search of new lands. The new lands in our corporate adventures are new customers, market segments, alliances, technologies and business approaches. Emphasis and underscore for the word: new.

In cultures led by caretaker leaders, new is a problem to be eliminated not a course to be followed. In these leaderless organizations, the old belief that culture eats strategy for lunch becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mantra is: We do this, and we do it this way, trumps the need to change. New is sacrificed on the altar of convention and consistency in these bastions of stability.

Culture is a Tool for Change:

The leaders-who-lead; the ones who turn into the fog are the ones who use the culture as a tool for change. They eat culture for lunch. They understand and respect the history and personalities and heroics and legends that created the culture. They are adept enough to frame the culture as a strength while consuming and excising that portion of it that resists change and new.

These leaders gain support by appealing to the hearts and minds of the people in the organization. They engender confidence by backing their words with actions. And most of all, they provide the locomotive force for change by making or facilitating the big decisions that paralyze caretaker leaders. They practice and apply the behaviors essential to driving change in an environment where inertia is the most powerful force.

11 Key Behaviors of Leaders Who Eat Culture for Lunch

  1. They know the game of power and the rules of the political environment, and they use them aggressively to gain the culture’s permission for change.
  2. They are experts at finding and tapping into the influencers in the environment for support.
  3. They are experts at using the tools of influence to gain commitment and compliance.
  4. They use the culture’s energy to facilitate change with the skill of a judo master. They convince others that what they are doing or proposing is a concrete manifestation fo the culture in action.
  5. They are fearless, and everyone knows it.
  6. They are relentless experimenters who demand that their teams keep experimenting and learning on the road to solving big problems.
  7. Failure is treated as a momentary setback on the path to success.
  8. They are coalition builders committed to marshaling mass in support of change.
  9. The eliminate individuals who are obstacles. Quickly and fairly.
  10. They make heroes out of the people who support their efforts.
  11. They point in a direction and lead the way there.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Too often in this talk and writing about leadership, we focus on the noble aspects of the discipline and ignore the real work of moving people and firms in a new direction. The work is mostly not noble. It’s difficult and unglamorous and the tools often have sharp edges. There are casualties. Toes get stepped on. Egos get bruised. And culture changes. And it’s better than getting run over by the changing times. Is it time to put culture on the menu in your firm?

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