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I am passionate about making a difference to people and organisations- and I guess there are many who would like to do the same. I hope this could be a platform to share views and experiences so that we can all grow together and make a difference.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The leader's long shadow

Am back after a longish hiatus!
Continuing our explorations of creating the right culture in organisations......

Over the last few months, I have been reading and exploring the impact of the leader, and it is fairly obvious that the leader casts a really long shadow on the culture of an organisation. There are two questions that come to my mind as we delve deeper into this phenomena:
First, lets look at the 'great bad men' syndrome. Many of the great leaders usually have a couple of traits that works for them, but taken to an extreme, the same strengths can have extreme debilitating effects on culture. How do we balance 'greatness' and 'meanness'? Most organisations with a very unique culture have a 'this is the way we do it here' kind of a leader. What drives them, and how can we get the best out of them, and yet keep their certain whims from coming in the way of the culture of the organisation.
I read about Rupert Murdoch in the Economist recently (from where I borrowed the 'great bad men' epithet). A great man, undoubtedly, for having changed the television and media industry, but could the organisation have done something to keep check on the 'scoop-at-all-cost' culture. Similarly, I wonder about Steve Jobs- sheer brilliance in building a customer and product centric culture, but is there is a faint streak of authoritarianism that runs through in Apple? This is where my dilemma is- if we meddle in the culture of such organisations, you tend to dilute the unique edge that these leaders have brought to it. On balance, I think it may be better to live with these rough edges ..... what do you think? Or is there a way to temper those edges appropriately?
Which then leads me to my second, and a much larger question. What drives leaders to focus on building a strong sustainable culture? While the intellectual part of the 'case for culture' is easier, as it is linked to the culture elements needed to drive strategy, there is a subconscious, emotional part of this need that is far more powerful and critical. In my experience, it is the personal desire that certain leaders have, part stemming from ego, and part from a strong belief in a particular way of working, that is much more potent in driving culture. I guess it is for organisations to understand this and build on it- not always easy, as we need to ensure that this personal drive is aligned to what the organisation needs at that point in time. Any experiences you would like to share that will help us understand this better? 
Your responses to the poll will help us understand the motivation of leaders in driving culture.... Cheers 


  1. Shanks, when I go through the examples you have cited in your note, I do think I would have Apple be what it is today rather than anything else. And if it's a creation of Steve (which I believe it is) and if has serious rough edges (which every write up on him claims to be true) so be it. May be to change the world you need longer than usual shadows. I dont connect with Murdoch empire as much to be able to comment on the same. So instead of trying to tone Steve down may be he needs to be left alone to do and get done what he thinks will make the world a better place. And if some have a problem with that operating style, they need to find a place to work where the shadow of the leader isnt cast on them.

  2. You've made some very apt remarks in this blog. I just completed reading HBP's "Why should anyone be led by you" and there too, the authors have argued that leaders can live with their own differences and yet impact the culture of a company drastically, notwithstanding their own personalities.

  3. Agree with the Apple part, when leaders with whims leave, they (metaphorically) leave a trail of blood behind, voids that cant be filled, confused cultures ! Somethin like an Iraq without a saddam (bad but apt analogy). All of us know that eccentricities(a harsh word!) come with the leader in a single, inseparable package..the cost of losing good people or their opinions due to the whims of such leaders would (in my opinion) always outweigh the value that a leader brings in most cases..we tend to see only the Apples and overvalue such leaders

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  5. Nice long shadow instead of wanting to strengthen Charlie down might be he or she should be left by itself to do and have performed what exactly he or she feels could make the entire world a much better spot!

  6. Shadow of the leader is a phrase used to describe a common phenomenon in business organizations where those in positions of leadership and power, through their behavior and actions, tend to influence the behavior and actions of those below them, thus casting a shadow across the organization...

  7. I have also learned that in a small family business the leader’s shadow also has a very strong influence on the guiding principles and operating policies of that company. It is certainly no different here.

  8. A leader should come from the people..so that he can understand the problems of the society...

  9. I have also learned that in a small family business the leader’s shadow also has a very strong influence on the guiding principles and operating policies of that company..