Because seeing and experiencing an excellent culture has more impact than listening to descriptions of an excellent culture, we took a class of executives to observe a positive organization and meet with the CEO. During the visit, there was a surprise. In a spontaneous moment, the CEO answered a question in a manner that some interpreted as sarcastic.
Later the group expressed a strong need to discuss the event. One participant said, “I just cannot get it out of my mind. I know that guy is a positive leader, but that one moment undermined everything for me. I cannot help but feel that if I worked for him, he might do the same thing to me.”
The statement unlocked strong feelings and led to many observations and insights. At the conclusion, I suggested there were three lessons. First, many managers think culture is something from above that is imposed upon them. They do not understand they are the prime creators of culture in their unit. In every interaction—including the one they observed—expectations form and the expectations become the governing rules of the unit. Whether they recognize it or not, every manager is a culture creator. When they realize it and begin to consciously behave so as to create a positive culture, they become a leader.
Second, constancy matters. A positive culture is created by positive interaction over time. This means a leader has to be sensitive to the immediate problem and sensitive to the culture formation process. This means thinking at two levels and constantly self-monitoring. All of us experience hunger, fatigue, frustration, despondence, anger, and so on. It is natural. Yet if our purpose is to build a positive culture, the purpose lifts us to constant self-monitoring and constant self-elevation.
Third, positive leadership is not some form of fixed perfection. Positive leadership is dynamic excellence, choosing to be a constant, purposive creator of positive culture. We all fail as did the observed leader. When we watched his failure, we were deeply impacted. One negative exception has large impact but there is a counter-balance. Unlike us, his people have experienced thousands of positive interaction with the person. This means he has a positive social bank account. They experience the rare negative moment and they give him the benefit of the doubt. Because there is a positive culture there is forgiveness in the culture. A person, including him, can make a mistake and not be judged and categorized. This means that as imperfect beings we can engage in the purposive, constant work of positive leadership, make a mistake, and still recover.
We agreed that our field trip was highly educational. We experienced a surprise. In pondering our unusual experience, we derived insights of high value and could return to our workplaces with new commitments.
- How forgiving is your culture?
- In every interaction, do you see yourself as a creator of culture?
- How often do you self-monitor and self-elevate?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive culture?