Organizational fit and the prevailing leadership paradigm

Posted by on May 14, 2010 in Hot Topics | 1 comment

No one would discount the importance of being aligned with the culture of the company you work for, and it’s particularly important for executives to reflect the cultural norms of the organization in their words and actions.  Being misaligned with your culture is generally a recipe for failure.  SAS, the North Carolina-based business software firm that routinely ranks among Fortune’s best companies to work for, has a strong employee-centric culture.  Commenting on their culture, CEO Jim Goodnight said, “Our culture is a lot like the human immune system.  If you bring a stranger into a leadership position, it attacks.”[1] This is true of most organizations.  People whose values and beliefs are incongruent with the values and beliefs of their organization are misfits and will eventually leave of their own volition or be forced out.  To illustrate cultural misalignment, we need only imagine what would have happened had a bull-in-the-china-shop executive like “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap assumed a leadership role at Southwest Airlines or if the laid-back twenty-somethings who write code for Facebook were transferred to the starchy environment of KKR or Goldman Sachs.

For executives and other leaders, one of the most important elements of culture is the prevailing leadership paradigm—the shared set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices about how leaders lead in the organization.  In traditional command-and-control organizations, the prevailing leadership paradigm includes a pyramid of hierarchical management authority, clear lines of communication and control, rewards and punishments for managers to motivate workers, and the presumption that managers have the right to command those reporting to them.  In less-hierarchical, more collaborative organizations, the prevailing leadership paradigm might include shared or shifting decision-making authority, self-organizing networks of communication and work flow, self-managing teams, and the presumption that, while managers may command, it is more appropriate for them to use influence rather than authority.  If we look at organizations as diverse as the U.S. Army, Cisco Systems, SAS, Apple, IBM, Dow Chemical, the Catholic Church, McDonalds, the New York Symphony, and Mary Kay Cosmetics, it seems clear that leadership paradigms in organizations can vary substantially.

The prevailing leadership paradigm in an organization often reflects the founder’s leadership beliefs and operating style, which, over time, become codified in the culture, much as Herb Kelleher’s leadership style and practices became “the Southwest Airlines way” and were reinforced in the company’s employee-run culture committee.  Or the prevailing paradigm may reflect the views and behaviors of a dominant CEO (e.g., Michael Eisner at Disney).  I use the word prevailing to indicate (1) that the leadership paradigm may evolve over time or abruptly shift with a new, strong leader who imposes a new way and (2) that some leaders in the organization may have a different view of leadership but that view will not prevail unless it evolves into the cultural norm for how leadership is practiced throughout the organization.

The leadership paradigm usually reflects the prevailing view about which stakeholders the organization principally serves—shareholders, customers, or employees.  As we know, shareholder value drove corporate strategy and leadership emphasis for many years (and still does in many organizations), but SAS and companies like it are driven by employee satisfaction, while Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom are driven by meeting customer needs and creating a differentiating experience.   The drive to meet the needs of its principal stakeholders determines which organizational behaviors are rewarded and hence which leadership behaviors are paramount.  Those behaviors are codified in leadership competency models, rewarded in performance appraisals, and syndicated in training and development programs, which is how they become part of the prevailing leadership paradigm of the organization.

When you join an organization, it’s important that you assess your fit with the organization’s culture.  Unless you’re being hired to turn around an ailing company that needs a radical cultural transformation, your success in the new organization will depend to a large extent on how well you fit the culture or how quickly you can adapt to it.  And a critical part of your fit is how closely aligned you are with the prevailing leadership paradigm of the organization.  It’s not that you can’t bring your own leadership principles to the table or introduce new ideas where you think they’re needed, but when you jump on galloping horse, it’s easier to lead the horse’s another way if you first ride in the direction the horse is headed.


[1] Kevin Maney, “SAS Workers Won When Greed Lost,” USA Today (April 21, 2004).  www.usatoday.com/money/industries/technology/2004-04-21-sas-culture_x.htm.  (accessed March 28, 2010).

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