The Wolf You Feed Determines The Organization’s CultureJune 5, 2021
One of the frequently cited business quotes that resonates the most with me, is Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Perhaps even more vivid is Lou Gerstner’s quote on culture:
“Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
Jockeying for position is a timeless tradition, whether in the C-suite, or on horseback, and, leadership of other people by its very nature is some continuum of humility and hubris, and each organization has it’s unique culture and the priorities and peculiarities that watermark it. What’s funny about watermarks, is that they are not always easily apparent, and sometimes a watermark requires an askance view in the right light, at the right angle to see.
Organizational culture is like a watermark; often if you don’t look for it, you don’t see it.
And it isn’t always readily apparent.
In the management consulting and C-suite arena, I’ve learned to focus up front on identifying and understanding the organizational culture.
And, isolate it.
To avoid doing so, makes one unfit to lead or counsel, and inevitably without strong leadership the tail will wag the dog, or the horse, or, the wolf.
It’s not uncommon that the failure point of an organization is leadership, management, or governance (in some cases, one or more board members) behavior.
We guide our clients to identify their culture, the positive and negative, so as to maximize the return on all forms of capital, not the least of which is human capital. All the machinery and technology in the world won’t operate itself. Service doesn’t provide itself. The people, aka, the “wolf pack,” with fierce determination and keen vision,make a company successful. And if they’re not “led, fed, and well-read,” they can’t work to their potential. Nothing happens without the right people, working under the right parameters.
Notably, there are different wolves in the organizational culture profile and the one that’s most fed becomes the alpha.
In the eighteenth century, when the Cherokee nation people were organized by groups, or clans, and villages or towns, a chief executive (no pun there) was the appointed leader whose job was “to give, not take,” and negotiate with other peoples, such as the Europeans. The Cherokee referred to this “CEO” as Uku, or “First Beloved Man.”
So, the Uku, whether male or female, is charged with the responsibility of leading, growing and operating the organization. Regardless where he or she is on the axes of Visionary, Synergist, Processor, Operator, or Catalyst, Traditionalist, or “over the wall corporate gamer,” where they fall in on the DISC, Myers-Briggs, PI, or whatever the latest and greatest executive profiling tool is that’s out there, they have to get up every day and manage the wolf pack.
In 2009’s The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis’s “Alan Garner” character, bemusingly mutters, in his soliliquy, “…I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack.” Being a one-person wolf pack is not consistent with success as a CEO. Being insular and not being able to conduct an orchestra of subject matter experts, is a fast path to leadership failure. But what about the role of the collective culture in the organization’s success?
Can a well-intended CEO who is a dynamic leader, pushing positive, productive culture be assured of success?
We’ve all had toxic coworkers and subordinates, even toxic clients and toxic vendors. There are virtually infinite participant levels on the organizational stakeholder wheel, each faction with their own unique agenda and sometimes conflicting view of the collective organization.
“ culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game” — Louis Gerstner, IBM
Whether or not it’s to be debunked by Snopes, the parable of the Cherokee grandfather and his grandson is an interesting one. It goes as follows, and it may or may not be attributed to an elder Cherokee, but it any case, it’s a profound piece of writing:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Group human behavior is a science unto itself, and the concept of Shadow of the Leader was first studied in business organizations and discussed in Larry Senn’s 1970 doctoral dissertation. Senn’s dissertation was the first systematic study of the concept of corporate culture and its central finding was that organizations become shadows of their leaders.
So, as the leader of the pack goes, does the pack go. At least for a while.
And, if in the realm of governance, if for example, a board Chairman enables a renegade board to dominate him or her, well, then he or she has failed to govern, in essence, feeding the wrong wolf.
So the lesson is this, organizations can polarize and feed different kinds of wolves, but generally the leader, or the Uku, decides which wolf will be fed first.
And if they themselves as CEO, don’t feed the right wolf, the pack will ultimately eat them.