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The Cultural Impact of a Leader

Nov 06

When I was about twenty-five years old, I worked for a large company, the second in my career. It was there that I discovered what seems so obvious in retrospect, but that changed the course of my career.

The CEO of the company, a man I never had the chance to meet, had a well-established reputation for being self-serving, ego-driven and exceedingly competitive.  I’m sure there are reasons that he was like that, and I don’t write this in judgment.  But those descriptions would be considered accurate by most people who worked at the company.

Today, I would warn my sons, or any friend of mine for that matter, to avoid working for a company with a leader like that man.  Unfortunately, no one gave me that advice at the time.  I suppose that my rationale was that I didn’t work directly for him—probably four levels below—so I figured I’d be largely insulated from his impact on me.  I soon discovered that I was wrong.

At the time, I decided that the managers I worked for directly would be more impactful to my experience than the CEO.  After all, those managers didn’t seem to share the personal traits of the company’s leader.  Unfortunately, those managers weren’t able to protect me from the cultural influence of the CEO.  On a daily basis, their decisions were driven, directly and indirectly, by the core beliefs of the man at the top.  Before I knew what was going on, I was being forced to make a daily choice: advance my career or adhere to my personal values.  Of course, like most people, I tried to do both.  Which was miserable.

And that’s when I came to fully realize something that I had heard from others, but that I had partially disregarded: the CEO really is the dominant driver of an organization’s culture and, ultimately, its success.  It’s true in small companies and large ones, and every sized company in between.

Why is it so important to understand this?  If you’re a CEO, consider that what you believe and how you behave is going to play out in your organization in ways that would surprise you, and will impact the people you lead in profound ways.  If you’re an employee currently frustrated in your organization, understand the role that your CEO has on your life at work, and consider that when evaluating your long-term plans.  Or if you’re looking for work, consider the character of the leader at the top and know that his or her values will play a significant role in the quality of your work life.  It will be inevitable.