A popular theme in sociology and industrial psychology is leadership. It was in 1989 that Steven Covey published his planetary bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and in 2001 that Jim Collins’ Good to Great made a worldwide impact. Since then, reams of articles and books on leadership have been produced by the Brookings Institute, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and McKinsey, with recent leadership gurus ranging from Simon Sinek to Ajay Banga. Podcasts on effective leadership flood social media channels and one can take degrees in leadership, even making a living out of being an executive life coach.
However, needless to say, studies of leadership go back to the earliest instances of literary production. Herodotus’ Histories scrutinized the actions of Persian Kings while Suetonius analyzed the behavior and strategies of The Twelve Caesars; Machiavelli’s The Prince gives a cynical account of leadership and Nelson Mandela’s beautiful Long Walk to Freedom, one of my all-time reading recommendations, tells the story of transformational leadership.
Something that transcends all of these accounts, from ancient to present, is culture. As Peter Drucker said, famously, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” What he meant by this is that an organizational strategic plan will remain nothing but a theoretical exercise if it is not owned by the people on the ground who should be living it out each day. In order for a mission to stick, it has to be adapted to the culture of the workplace.
Something I’ve learned in the courses and readings I’ve done, and it holds true for the observations I make every day, is that culture, no matter the scale (macroculture, microculture, subculture, national culture, culture of the workplace) is made up of three fundamental building blocks: beliefs, symbols, and behavior. Beliefs are what we say and profess, symbols are the visible icons that make up the environment we are in, but it is behavior, the way we act and the way we treat each other, that is the most important dimension of culture. At the end of the day, all the mission statements, logos, posters, flags, and quotations in the world will not be as important as the concrete actions that are taken.
The culture of a school is defined by the way people behave with each other, especially when no one is watching. Is your school a place where everybody greets one another? When visitors arrive, does the receptionist simply tell them where to go, or do they accompany them to where they need to be? When there is disagreement, do people send angry emails copying others to humiliate and attack, or do they drop by and speak face to face? How would students describe their school? Do they feel that they belong in the school and are they happy to come to school? Are they protected against bullying? It is the answers to these questions that will tell you what kind of culture your school has. Often, unfortunately, the answers to these questions do not correspond to the words of a mission statement.
I don’t believe in labeling culture as “toxic” or “healthy” since these are value judgments. It is, perhaps, better, to speak of cultures that are “mission-aligned” or not, meaning collective behaviors that correspond with the beliefs of the organization, or not. When there is alignment, the culture is strong and when the culture is strong, great things can be done within the organization because most people are rowing in the same direction.
However, while it is tempting to use sports analogies to describe organizational culture, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Schools are not football teams and trying to get everybody to do exactly the same thing basically does not work. This is because good schools should be places that cultivate criticality, freedom of expression, the right to reply, and informed discussions. Leaders can become frustrated with the colleague who always stands up at meetings and complains, or the whispering in the corridors or staffrooms that imply some form of criticism, but it is here that a great leader distinguishes themself from an average leader. Criticism is good and leaders have to be able to put a learning frame on such situations, be good listeners, not take things personally, and even encourage healthy dissent. It is in disagreement, as long as that disagreement is founded on intelligent principles, that improvement will be founded, root cause analysis established, and meaningful reform made. It’s easy for leaders to wrap themselves in the Emperor’s New Clothes, to surround themselves with sycophants and to want to suppress any dissent, but this creates a “yes man” culture of mistrust, fear, and superficial compliance. No strategy will stick for long on a surface as slippery as that.
When I started leading at my school, I wanted to reform everything quickly and I moved too fast. Faculty feedback was a reality check. My colleagues found me to be judgmental, someone who pretended to listen but did not, and impatient. I took a coaching course, was mentored by a personal coach, shared my growth goals with everyone, and learned the hard way to listen more respectfully, to do whatever I could to create psychological safety for teachers, to support and coach rather than to domineer and trail ahead. We still hold each other accountable and aim high, but it is done carefully and with humanity. Today my ratings are much better, and I believe it's because I’m thinking about culture before strategy.
As the African proverb goes, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Think culture before strategy, read the room, and bring everybody together.
Read the first of Conrad's series, an interview excerpt about his Leadership Journey. In his second article, he shares his thoughts on contributing to the global movement through Leadership and Innovation.
Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is the campus and secondary principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been a school principal, director of education, International Baccalaureate diploma program coordinator, and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India, and the Netherlands. Conrad is a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education. He teaches philosophy.