Lessons for Top Leaders

Katherine Tyler Scott

I think it shows the key lesson is that leaders can have a profound effect on the development and maintenance of an organization’s culture. But, the competence and character of leaders also matter. What separates the top tier leaders from their peers is the combination of both. Those at the top are almost always at the top of their game technically speaking. They have integrity and a high degree of congruence between their values and their actions, and this alignment engenders trust, offers a comforting not stagnant predictability, and strengthens belief in the long term sustainability of an organization. All of this speaks volumes to those in the organization who our meaning, stability, and a sense of hope for the future.

In top down bureaucracies like the Federal government where status and title matter a great deal, the individual at the top is always accorded a certain formal authority. How they lead once they are in the position, determines whether they will be authorized by their followers to lead. The really effective leaders understand this. They are able to differentiate their roles at the different levels of organizational culture.  

A leader operates at multiple levels of culture and their role differs in each one. Three that I will address are artifactual, administrative, and altruistic. At the artifactual level, the leader’s primary role is external and symbolic; they represent the Company and often personify its brand to the world. They are the chief spokesman for and translator of an organization’s values and assumptions, its mission and its vision. 

The great leader understands that he or she is responsible for the entire organization and they cannot lead alone. They need a solid structure, good people, organization of work and accountability, lines of communication, ways to evaluate, recognize, and reward performance. Most importantly they must delegate these functions to capable and credible leaders in middle management. These leaders need to know that what they do on a day-to-day basis is aligned with the strategic direction and goals of the organization. They are the on-the-ground translators of the mission and goals into results. The more aligned they are with upper leadership, the less they may stand out. In the administrative level, the leader’s role is more internally focused.  The best leaders delegate these functions but because they know the long term impact these will have on a culture.  They are clear about how they want things to work and have clearly articulated ways to monitor progress. 

The third level of culture is one that addresses the soul of the institution, its less visible part. The role of the leader here is to inspire, to call forth the best in those employed, and to support the continued self-development. This role is one that values the guiding principles and values that formed and shaped the organization. This level of leadership asks two questions: In addition to its mission what greater purpose does the organization have? What impact does the organization care to have on the lives of those it serves and on the larger world? Just the asking wards off insularity; the answers bring clarity and focus.

Those who function well at all three levels, earn the well deserved admiration and respect of peers and those being managed by them. They set the tone for everyone else in the organization and those who identify with them will be most influenced by them, no matter their position.

Perhaps this is what we see in the survey results. 

From the Washington Post - On Leadership - August 31, 2010