The 10 questions leaders should be asking about culture


There are many good definitions of leadership out there. Mine is simple: a leader is a culture-changer.

Leaders Рall leaders Рhave the capacity to change a particular culture (or part of a culture) they are in. Leadership, therefore, occurs when a culture has been changed in some way, shape or form. 

It can be the culture at home or in a group of friends on the playground at recess or in PTO meeting or in a nationally recognized corporation or leading an entire nation. Leaders may be bad leaders by changing the culture inappropriately or unawares. (Hitler, by definition, was an effective leader in changing the culture all throughout Europe – though in horrendously evil ways). Christian leaders are ones who are led by the direction of the Holy Spirit who illuminates a new ‘culture’ in the mind of a leader which is designated for a group of people to accomplish God’s purposes (think of the stories of the biblical examples of Moses, Joshua, the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Samuel, King David, Esther, Peter, Paul, etc).

Leaders can be great leaders, effectively laying down their own personal preferences in order to rally a group of people to a greater mission larger than themselves. Good or bad, subtly or dramatically, leaders change the status quo. By contrast, a manager is a culture-maintainer whose goal is to keep the system exactly as is. It is important for us to remember that we need both leaders and managers (as well as followers) in our cultures and that not everyone can or should be a leader.

If a leader is a culture-changer then it’s important to be¬†tireless student of the current culture and to ask wisely and courageously what type of culture is needed to build a hopeful future.¬†A leader is constantly asking, what parts of our current culture should stay – and what parts should change? To answer these questions, leaders need a healthy dose of both wisdom and courage. Wisdom without courage leaders to inaction and courage without wisdom leads to destruction.

In light of this definition, Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly asks a series of incredibly thoughtful questions about culture that are important for all leaders. Consider spending quality time reflecting on these questions:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows in this culture? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does it look)?