Coaching Article – 4 Steps to Re-Ignite a Strong Work Culture

By Lee Ellis

When you feel helpless to create change around you, it’s time to re-think and be aware of the areas that you do have influence. Recently, I’ve mentioned my concern about our national culture and the growing fractures and splits we are seeing. This month, it’s time to take culture down to the local level, to the arena where you have power and influence. Self-aware leaders recognize this opportunity and are intentional about clarifying the culture and then setting the example.

Positive Outcomes from Your Example

There are many great advantages to a strong culture –

  • better teamwork
  • higher performance
  • greater loyalty
  • more open communications
  • more alignment and cohesiveness of teams

One outcome that often gets overlooked is that empowerment is much safer and easier when you have a strong culture. If your people know the goals, values, expectations, and boundaries, they can effectively make decisions at the lower levels—which means they will feel more valuable and more likely to work hard to live up to your confidence in them. This also gives them good experience for development and creates an environment where they can learn from their mistakes. A side effect is that empowerment takes some of the load off you and your managers. All this blends together to make your organization a great place to work.

Watch my 6-minute coaching clip on this topic as I dive deeper on the topic of building an honorable culture –

Creating Culture in the Camps

Though the Vietnam POW environment ended almost fifty years ago, I refer to those lessons from that experience often because they highlight the power of culture in which the leaders had to clearly define the expectations and then set the example for followers. Because of the limited communications, every cell and every individual at some point had to make very hard decisions—all alone. Yet 99% of the POWs took ownership for those hard decisions and in doing so resisted the enemy heroically to do their duty and live up to our cultural standards.

Though few leaders will ever have to endure isolation, beatings and torture to live by the standards and values they have set for the culture, the example of our POW leaders provides a powerful lesson that is crucial for our workplace (and society) today. If you have read my two leadership books on that experience, you know those stories.

Two Modern-Day Culture Examples

Highly successful organizations may have many differences in how they operate, but they will share one thing in common—they have a strong culture that keeps them aligned to accomplish the mission. [Tweet This]

Remember the great leadership guru of the 80’s, Peter Drucker, and his famous quote – “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.”

Another great example about the importance of culture comes from Jim Collins’ renowned book Built to Last. In his example of what I call the Yin and the Yang graphic showing Preserve the Core and Stimulate progress, the Core covers most of what we are referring to here.

Collins’ Core centers around Core Purpose and Core Values. These are two of the foundational pieces of organizational culture. The third is what I call, for lack of a better term, Organizational Uniqueness. Top rated culture (and retention) companies like Southwest Airlines, The Blue Angels, DreamWorks, REI, and Squarespace all have a uniqueness to their culture that might not fit other great cultures.

Also, keep in mind that some organizations will have very specific “ground rules” and boundaries that will be critical to their unique culture. For example, the military and first responder cultures will have some unique rules and expectations. It is in these three major areas of culture, that leaders must clarify and then set the example for others.

So, let’s get specific about the 4 cultural responsibilities of leaders to re-ignite your team or organization –

  1. Leaders must define and own the culture. You as a leader own and support it 100%—meaning the purpose, values, and unique attributes of what you want and expect. If you’re the senior leader, you have that right and role. If you’re the subordinate leader, then you must embrace it 100% as though it was all your idea. If not, leave ASAP because you are being disloyal. Of course, if you think something in the culture is unethical or inappropriate, then you need to speak up and explain the logic for your beliefs. That would be a loyal thing to do if done respectfully. And if your voice is not heard, then it’s probably time to move on.
  2. Leaders must clarify the culture. The purpose, values, and unique aspects of your culture must be clear to all, and it must be repeated often. People have short memories and naturally tend to go with the path of least effort. People have very different personalities and past experiences, so the expected culture must be a living, breathing part of the environment. In a healthy culture, the person at the bottom of the structure must know and understand it—and feel empowered to call it to the attention of someone who is out of line.
  3. Leaders must live the culture. Your example shows your commitment to the standards you’ve set. The higher up the ladder you are the more people are watching you. Your example inspires and reminds them of the cultural expectations. Your people are serving you, and the quickest way to undermine your authority and other’s confidence in you is to violate the culture you are advocating. And what if you miss the mark? We’re human, and we all violate some of our personal standards. When you mess up, your character and humility are put to the test. If you immediately take ownership for your error/mistake and apologize, you set the example of how you want others to operate. If you own it and re-commit, in almost every case, respect by your teammates and your influence is going to increase because your vulnerability shows you are genuine. You can be trusted.
  4. Leaders must enforce the culture. Remember that you’re leading humans, and none of us are perfect. But as a leader, you must emphasize the positives (the carrot) of having an important purpose, healthy values, and ground rules (guidelines, policies and boundaries) in your culture. Then when someone violates your culture, you must hold them accountable (the stick). That can be gentle and subtle at times and in other situations, it must be direct and strong. In all cases it must be respectful.

Dave Cantu,

My Challenge to You

I want to challenge you to spend some time reflecting on your culture.

  • Have you defined it, and do you own it?
  • Are your regularly Clarifying it, Living it, and Enforcing it?
  • Are you empowering your people to decide and act in the areas where they have responsibility?

To be a great leader, you must be intentional and courageous to ensure that your people are operating in a great culture? Work with your team to define it. Then set the example by your actions and your vulnerability. You will grow in effectiveness, but perhaps more important your people will too.

LE [Tweet this Article]

Team Culture Development with the Courageous Accountability Online Course

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Where Did the Courageous Accountability Model Start?

From his early experiences as an Air Force jet fighter pilot and POW in the prison camps of Vietnam to an award-winning author, presenter, and leadership consultant, Lee Ellis shares his concerns about the lack of accountability in our culture and how you can apply a positive, proven accountability model to get better results as a leader.

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