leadership and cultural blind spots

This morning my 10-year-old daughter was running late for school. Trying to usher her out the door, she told me it didn’t really matter because the teacher in her morning class is always late. Leaders, in this case a teacher, influence culture more often than they know.

Edgar Shein proposes in his seminal work, Organisational Culture and Leadership, that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin – Leadership influences the organisational culture and culture influences how the leader "does" leadership. His, obviously very book-ish, definition of culture goes:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Shein, 2004)

Where is your culture leading you?

No surprises so far. At its best, culture helps us unite and navigate. It’s a handy little behavioural roadmap based on shared assumptions. At its worst, culture can obstruct what the organisation is trying to achieve. This is when the roadmap might lead us down a dangerous path. Perhaps the culture doesn’t support the kind of customer focus that the strategy calls for, or it might make it hard for new employees to fit in, or perhaps it even allows for behaviour that is harmful.

As such, culture can work as both an enabler and an inhibitor. As a leader, which of these two paths are you leading your people down?

Leadership drives culture drives performance

A meta-study (Ogbonna & Harris, 2000) on the interrelation between leadership style, culture and performance shows that over time, the culture of the organisation will influence the leader and his or her leadership style which in turn will influence organisational performance (see model). In essence, you cannot consider one without the other. Leadership, culture and performance go together ­­– like three peas in a pod.  

This happens so subtly that we might not even notice. And for this reason, leaders should consider something as straight forward as paying attention a leadership tool in itself.  

culture performance model


This model underlines the – perhaps more immediate than one would think – link between performance and leadership style. It goes to show, that leaders can tap into what is immediately available to them by observing their own behaviour as the first step in supporting the overall performance of their organisation.

Good leadership behaviour? Expand your field of attention

Whether we are leading others or not, we all tend to operate in a default mode governed by our field of attention. Our field of attention is what we primarily see and therefore ascribe importance. This somewhat Johari-esque concept has a great impact on leadership and it urges leaders to be curious about what is happening outside this field.

As with the opening example in this article when a leader is not timely, or perhaps one could even say not invested or present, we see that this field of attention influences culture.

A leader’s field of attention can be observed by the organisation in many aspects including:

  • What the leader perceives, measures and controls regularly 
  • How the leader reacts to critical events and organisational crisis
  • The criteria from which the leader allocates resources, rewards and status
  • The conscious use of role models, learning and guidance, for example through coaching
  • The criteria from which the leader recruits, selects, promotes, pensions/retires and expels members of the organisation

Reading through this list and fleshing out some examples from your own workplace makes it obvious that the leader´s field of attention inevitably will impact the organisational culture. And arguably, awareness of self and others is a useful tool for leaders to grow and develop. The outcome is most likely a greater ability for leaders to support a working environment that is sound for both the people and the bottom-line.

Leadership and cultural trade-offs

To examine the concept of the field of attention a bit more, consider the following simplified notions of leadership. Perhaps you will recognise some of the cultural trade-offs.

  • Leadership as Gaining and Exercising Privileges. When leadership is regarded as the reward you get for making it to the hierarchical top where recognition and status shines bright. This could create a competitive culture inadvertently justifying moving up while keeping others down.
  • Leadership as Being the Boss. When leadership is overseeing the work of the organisation by telling everyone what to do, when to do it and rewarding or punishing accordingly. This could feed a culture of submission at the expense of employee ownership or responsibility.
  • Leadership as Task Orientation. When leadership is getting the job done – and that's all that matters. This could foster a culture where people and relations are easily forgotten. Employees simply become resources, a means to an end.
  • Leadership as Taking Care of People. When leadership is looking out for the people you lead and making sure they get what they need. This could create a culture of caring, and perhaps also signal a less performance focused approach.
  • Leadership as Empowerment. When leadership is helping the people you lead gain power and be able to lead themselves. This could support a culture of ownership and responsibility, but perhaps also one that does not provide the direction needed.
  • Leadership as Providing Moral Leadership. When leadership translates as the leader forcing his or her own standards or preferences onto others. This creates a culture of (more or less explicit) expectations and a notion that things can be done "the right way" or not.

The main take away here is realising that even when we are seeing clearly, we still have blinders on.

Cultural awareness as a leadership objective

At Workz, we work in the intersection of culture and leadership in several ways. When we design leadership training with a cultural or value-based component, we often prioritise making an intimate learning space. The benefit? Learning in a trustful context makes space for giving and receiving personal feedback which is the precondition for leadership growth and development.

We emphasise reflection as individuals and as a team on ways to apply leadership and how it effects organisational culture.

We often assign "homework" between learning modules. We ask participants to carry out a type of leadership action or behaviour that is somewhat out of their comfort zone. That is, any type of behaviour that can gently push the culture in the direction that supports the overall strategy. In other words, we encourage participants to actively explore the periphery of their field of attention. This could be praising a collaborative effort instead of performance output.

Where to start? Working with culture in leadership development

We have seen good results when using the following elements in our collaboration with clients looking to integrate cultural awareness with leadership training.

Culture Analysis

  • Geert Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions or Erin Meyers culture map model are great frameworks for analysing the different cultural aspects in global organisations. This gives a clear indication of the status quo, and it has proven useful when looking at gaps between the HQ culture and national sub-cultures within the same company.

Insights on Leadership Style and Behaviour

  • This can be found through organised self-reflection or data from employee surveys. An active use of data from exit-conversations, looking at what makes people leave the company is also useful. In Workz, we have often used different types of leadership style inventory models, such as Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles, to create a language of the "field of attention" and how it effects the culture in the organisation.

Leadership Simulations

  • Lastly, as a specialty, we often include one or more of our leadership simulations. A business simulation makes learning highly engaging and gives instant feedback on participant’s leadership skills. Simulations are especially advantageous to shed light on one’s own leadership behaviour and bridge the gap between knowing something and building actionable leadership competences.

We hope this offers food for thought. Check out this article for more inspiration on how to design your communication to facilitate culture change.