Do leaders create culture, or does culture create leaders?

It seems like a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: do leaders create a culture, or is it the other way around? Our perspective is that it’s both: culture and leaders influence each other.

If you imagine yourself as a new leader coming into organization, that organization will have a culture. That culture will influence—and perhaps in some respects dictate—how you will ultimately behave in that organization. The longer an organization has been around, the stronger the culture of that organization, and the more that organization will guide the behavior of the leader.

Culture influences leaders

Marriot has been around for almost 100 years and has some very distinct ways of operating: they have a well-defined and well-entrenched system of values and practices. Our advice to leaders entering into an organization with that sort of culture is to take a “look and listen” approach. Don’t come in to try to change things too quickly: watch, observe, and ask questions. Make sure you understand the culture and build credibility in an organization before you try to change it.

Leaders influence cultures

The other side of this is that leaders do have a unique position in an organization. They get to make decisions every day about behavior that gets rewarded, what gets negative attention, what gets acted upon, and what doesn’t. Leaders are in a position to exert greater influence and impact on the culture than others in an organization. That influence, over time, can steer even a well-established culture in a new direction.

How long does it take to build culture?

Every organization develops a culture as soon as people begin to work together to build it. Our research shows that organizations that have been around for 5 or 10 years can have the same attributes as one that has existed for 50 or more years. For a younger company trying to build a strong culture, being intentional from day 1 is key. This is a time when leaders can have great impact, because the longer a culture has been around and the more embedded the habits have become, the more influence the culture will exert upon the leader.

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