Organizational culture is influenced and depended upon leadership style and personal characteristics of a leader. The strategy of an organization involves how it plans to achieve its mission and goals and is partly determined by its culture. However, strategy can also become one of the factors that influence the evolution of culture. Given that leadership becomes particularly important, it is crucial to understand the role and influence of leaders in the acculturation process and healthy organizational culture (Robbins, 2004). Leaders with different styles may have different preferences for values, morals and culture.
Following Foster-Fishman and Keys (1997): “Organizational culture refers to the shared system of meaning that guides organizational members’ believing, thinking, perceiving, and feeling, ultimately directing their behavior”. One of the major factors in the creation and development of culture is the influence of the leaders on an organization. Leaders leave an almost indelible mark on the assumptions passed down from one generation to the next. As a matter of fact, an organization often comes to mirror its leader’s personality. If the leader is control oriented and autocratic, the organization will be centralized and managed in a top-down fashion. If the leader is participative and team oriented, the organization will be decentralized and open. “Leaders and managers must be willing and able to expand their structuring of power to provide staff greater access to resources and increased discretion” (Foster-Fishman and Keys, 1997, p. 345).
The leaders are role models for organizational members. Stories are told about them, and myths are created about their courage, creativity, and physical prowess. Such stories help perpetuate leaders’ influence on their organizations and therefore safeguard the culture. The roles of leaders are that they establish and grant many of the status symbols that are the main artifacts of culture. They grant special awards within the organization that again set up role models for other employees. These role models are more often than not individuals who are excellent representatives of the culture of the organization. For instance, many executives are avid athletes. By setting themselves up as role models, they send the signal to their organizations that physical fitness is a key to success. Other means through which the leader shapes culture are by making decisions regarding the reward system and by controlling decision standards. What types of accomplishments will be rewarded is a major aspect of the culture of an organization (Robbins, 2004). The top managers decide which behaviors will be rewarded. In one organization, rewards (both financial and non-financial) go only to the highest contributors to the bottom line. In another, other accomplishments such as contributions to cultural diversity and degree of social responsibility are also valued and rewarded. By controlling the reward system, leaders can help maintain or change the culture of their organization. The responsibility of a leader is to establish core values and high morale among employees. “Core values and core purposes in enduring great organizations remain stable, while their operating values, practices, strategies, tactics, processes, structures, and methods, change continually” (Tannenbaum, 2003, p. 19). The power of the leader to make decisions for the organization regarding morale and strategy is another significant means of shaping healthy culture. By determining the hierarchy, the span of control, the reporting relationship, and the degree of formalization and specialization, the leader molds culture (Robbins, 2004). A highly decentralized and organic structure is likely to be the result of an open and participative culture, whereas a highly centralized structure will go hand in hand with a mechanistic/bureaucratic culture.
To create a healthy organizational culture leaders can maintain internal health. “Top leaders should encourage all managers to adopt a more participatory management style, providing autonomy and delegating decision-making responsibility to their employees” (Foster-Fishman and Keys, 1997, p. 345)..One of the functions of organizational culture is to help the organization function smoothly by providing the bond that keeps people together. The strength of the bond varies from one organization to the next and even within subgroups inside a single organization. However, regardless of the strength, culture provides the identity and collective commitment that are central to encouraging stability in an organization. A healthy culture is essential for the health of the organization. It can be achieved through string personal image and effective communication (Sass, 2000).
Another strategy which helps to maintain a healthy culture is giving identity and creating commitment. Culture makes every organization unique. Culture allows one group to set itself apart from others. Therefore, one of the essential aspects of culture is to provide a clear and unique identity to members of an organization. By demonstrating and communicating its culture, an organization can attract and retain employees. The unique identity can also become a source of competitive differentiation in the development of strategy (Robbins, 2004). The presence of an identity leads to higher employee commitment. Belonging to a company with a strong identity provides employees with a sense of family and belonging, which are essential factors in employee morale and satisfaction. Much has been written about the positive aspects of such an identity.
Taking into account me personal experience, I can say that the leader’s openness led to the creation of the healthy organizational culture. The leaders make most, if not all, of the decisions regarding the various factors that will shape culture (unique values, morals, communication). Once they are in place, they in turn influence the culture that contributed to their creation. “The focus becomes directed toward changing everyone and everything else rather than focusing on leader behavior and decision making as the real mechanisms for forging culture and creating desired changes” (Tannenbaum, 2003, p. 19). Trying to decide whether culture comes before the various organizational elements or whether they come first is only relevant in the early stages of the organizational life cycle. Once the organization is created, culture becomes one of the highly interdependent elements that influence decision making and affect performance. The structure of an organization limits or encourages interaction and, by doing so, affects, as well as is affected by, the assumptions shared by members of the organization. Similarly, the strategy selected by the leader or the top management team will be determined by, as well as help shape, the culture of the organization. A proactive differentiation strategy that requires innovation and risk taking will engender a very different culture than a strategy of retrenchment. Similarly, it may be very difficult for an inflexible leader to implement a highly innovative strategy that requires quick adaptation to the external environment and a healthy organizational culture.
- Foster-Fishman, P.G., Keys, Ch. B. (1997). The Person/environment Dynamics of Employee Empowerment: An Organizational Culture Analysis. American Journal of Community Psychology 25 (3), 345.
- Robbins, S. (2004). Organizational Behavior. Prentice Hall. 11 Ed.
- Sass, J.S. (2000). Characterizing Organizational Spirituality: An Organizational Communication Culture Approach. Communication Studies 51 (3), 195.
- Tannenbaum, M.A. (2003). Organizational Values and Leadership. The Public Manager, 32 (2), 19.