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The significance of culture and its effects on organisational accomplishments and achievements is best described by Culture Leadership, which is linked to the concept of shadow of the leader.

What does this mean?

Put simply, the impact of top leaders on organisational culture is tremendous.

Leaders lead by example, and thus have to be aware of the influence they have on their team. Every leader casts and projects a shadow onto their environment, events and people.

In any culture you will find that most behaviours exist as a collective, no matter where they sit in the hierarchy of leadership. Many of the same behaviours can be found at all levels of leadership, even in the teams that report to senior managers.

Therefore, it is up to us as leaders to be self-aware and conscious that our teams will behave the way we do.

When cultures want to go from good to great

There is a myriad of research that shows one of the main pain points in any culture is the lack of collaboration. In other words, most leaders say they just wished their teams would participate, get onboard and work together.

However, when these studies took place, they interviewed the teams and asked why didn’t they collaborate better. Their response? ‘Why should I when my leader doesn’t?’

Lack of partnership, cooperation and collaboration is one example of a cultural attribute impacted by the shadow of the leader. These include finger-pointing, accusing, blaming, lack of development and coaching, resistance to change, and the list goes on.

Some other pain points in organisational culture impacted by the shadow of the leader are:

  • Productivity — According to the Gallup Group, 70% of the discrepancy in employee engagement and connection is the impact of the leader on team effectiveness.
  • Process management — There are two ways this plays out. On the one hand, some leaders use their power position to get things done and at times play favourites, which just creates a hindrance in decision- On the other hand, there are the leaders that use their teams’ personal power and work with their strengths, which is a productivity boost.

Development of people is the highest calling of leadership

When an organisation feels like they don’t speak as one voice, leaders do not feel psychologically safe. They may generally be polite and non-confrontational and may even all agree on a decision in a meeting. However, outside of the meeting, they are likely to not support the decision in its entirety.

Similar examples of the shadow leader’s influence are:

  • A level playing field — This very much links in with inclusion. Once there is a sense of us ‘versus’ them, territory issues arise between different functions, as well as corporate and business units. 
  • Leadership pipelines — When organisations don’t develop their talent pipeline, they will lack the leaders who can drive great performance from their teams. A lack of investment in developing people for their next role will backfire on organisations when they look to promote from within as they evolve. Promoting from within is an excellent way to reward and retain loyal employees.
  • Relationships with customers — Managers set the tone for how their teams treat customers. This is a prime instance of leading by example. If the leader is attentive, mindful and conscientious, their team will be too. However, if they are abrupt and blunt, their team will follow suit.

Culture shaping starts at the top

Time and time again, research reveals that organisations tend to take on the characteristics of their leaders. The founders’ and superior leaders’ values, beliefs, morals, habits and biases leave an imprint on any company.

And the most important shadows of all come from the top. CEO. MD. GM.

Consequently, if we as a collective want to shape any element of the system, we must consciously lead with purpose. We need to model the behaviours we desire because individuals tend to take on the characteristics of those who have some power or influence over them.

To put the shadow of the leader into perspective, here are a few examples from a team member’s point of view: 

  • Their leader doesn’t value what they have to say — They walk away thinking their opinion doesn’t matter and therefore suppress their opinions and hold back from speaking up.
  • Their leader is very much ‘do as I say, not as I do’ — They tune out and lack motivation because there is conflict with what one says in comparison to what one does.
  • Their leader didn’t acknowledge or reward their creativity — They then conclude that they are not good enough.

Debbie Ford says that we project our own perceived shortcomings onto others. We say to others what we should be saying to ourselves. When we judge others, we are judging ourselves.

If we constantly beat ourselves up with negative thoughts, we will either affect the people around us — verbally, emotionally or physically — or we will affect ourselves by destroying some area of our own lives.

That’s why if we want to be effective leaders, we must become aware of our shadow. We need to observe our reactions, practice being conscious of our triggers — how we react and conduct ourselves with others — and make sure our message is aligned with our actions.

To read the second piece in this two-part series, click here.