Every organization has a culture that is unique to it. That culture is a combination of the ethos its leaders bring, past history (and leadership), as well as the spoken and unspoken values of its constituency. When we label a congregations with terms like legalistic, grace-filled, warm, loving, hard to break in or conflict adverse, what we are describing is its culture.
In most cases, organizations will have a combination of culture to celebrate and pieces of their culture that are problematic. For instance, a congregation may be very loving and caring and at the same time be unable to resolve conflict well. The former is healthy culture, the latter is unhealthy.
One of the key roles that leaders play is that of being “culture creators.” Leaders don’t simply accept the current culture as what should be. Rather they think deeply about what parts of the culture of their organization are healthy and worthy of celebration and those parts of the culture that are unhealthy and need to be addressed. For instance, when I took leadership in my current role I found huge loyalty to the organization among its staff – a positive and helpful part of our culture. On the other hand, we did not have an ethos that invited honest, robust dialogue over issues – a weakness in our culture. We have therefore worked hard to create a culture where such dialogue is always encouraged as long as it is not a personal attack or contain a hidden agenda.
Leadership teams, whether church boards, staff or other senior teams would do well to white board the cultural traits of their organization and then divide the list into two parts, “healthy cultural traits” and “unhealthy cultural traits.” Then create a third column “preferred culture” and describe what you would really like to see. Then start working together to create that culture by taking specific steps that will start to reinforce the cultural traits you desire.
Often this will mean that leaders must change their own behaviors which contribute to both healthy and unhealthy culture. Defensive leaders, for instance, cannot create an open environment where healthy dialogue is the norm without finding ways to lower their defensive reactions which create barriers to robust dialogue. Leaders who don’t deliver on their promises are unlikely to create a results driven environment. Instead they send a message that execution does not really matter.
Good leaders don’t ignore the culture question. They are always watching and thinking about the organization’s culture, both the healthy and problematic. And, they are intentional in celebrating and reinforcing the healthy and modifying and dealing with the problematic. Changing your culture is not easy but it is critical for those organizations that desire to be all that they can be. The most powerful cultural clues to an organization are the commitments, attitudes and behaviors of their leaders. That fact alone ought to motivate us to think about culture – we create most of is for better or for worse.