Businesses don’t fail – products don’t fail – projects don’t fail – leaders fail. I have little use for leaders who can effortlessly call upon the right clichés and buzzwords in conversation, but fail to put into practice what they so frequently wax eloquent about.

Words matter; but they matter more when put into action when they become real when they make a difference. If you’re a CEO prone to rambling on about culture, only to be blind to the reality of the culture you’re stewarding, today’s column is written just for you.

The “X” Factor Defined

Great Culture – it’s that ethereal “X” factor every organization strives to attain but few achieve. It’s often talked about but rarely understood. Culture is, in fact, more than a buzzword – it’s the very lifeblood of an organization. Culture is what develops and sustains an enterprise. Every organization has a culture. The question CEOs must ask of themselves is do they have the culture they need? Culture must be more than an afterthought – it must be intentional, purposed, and created by design; not by default.

How to Identify The Problem

The nice thing about culture is that good and bad cultures alike are very easy to spot. We all know a great culture when we experience it… great talent, high engagement, outstanding performance, creativity flourishes, and innovation abounds. Likewise, we’ve all experienced the feeling you get when the lifeblood of an organization seems to have disappeared and rigor mortis has set in.

But here’s the thing – Humpty Dumpty can always be put back together again. Cultures in trouble can be turned around. A toxic culture is simply a code for bad leadership. The only thing required to create cultural transformation is switched-on leadership. If leaders care, are engaged, and understand the power of surrender and the futility of control great strides can be made. When leaders can get out of their own way and can come to grips with the fact it doesn’t matter who’s right, but that it matters greatly what’s right, remarkable things can occur rather quickly.

Viewing Culture Through The Right Lens

Culture – it’s less about the structure and more about values, vision, talent, behaviors, and a shared purpose. When you think culture, think open-source not proprietary, adaptive, not static, actionable not theoretical, and progressive not regressive. Above all think shared, cohesive, and simple.

So why do so many organizations get culture wrong? They copy instead of creating, they fail to understand people, context, and purpose matter, and they don’t have the resources to truly manage the rigor associated with aligning the business of culture with the execution of strategic imperatives.

Few will argue about the importance of culture, but vehement disagreements arise when you talk about the proper frameworks and constructs needed to create the right culture. Let me attempt to put an end to the silliness of these petty debates. Smart leaders don’t confuse fads and trends with culture. They realize that culture (at least a sustainable one) consists of more than ping-pong tables and free food. The key to culture is found in what I refer to as creating a culture of leadership.

Getting Traction

Here’s a quick tip – if you want to make progress on culture, stop creating a false premise that strategy and culture are in competition with one another. Refuse to engage in the strategy versus culture debate. It’s not strategy or culture, but strategy and culture. Clearly, culture should be a core element of strategy, and while it’s important to understand that the vision for culture might be set by the tone at the top, the best cultures are not mandated or imposed on people, they are co-created by the people – people are the culture. But for the people, there are no products, services, systems, processes, platforms, etc.

The Key Ingredient

Wait for it… The secret sauce to culture is leadership ubiquity. The point at which your entire workforce not only sees themselves as leaders but are empowered to think and act like leaders is when a cultural transformation has taken root. If you tell people often enough they’re not leaders, don’t be surprised when they believe you. Likewise, if you treat people like leaders they will begin to act as leaders. While the choice is obvious, you’d be surprised how many people leaders get this wrong.

It Boils Down To Leadership

Nothing inspires change and innovation like great leadership, and likewise, there is no more costly legacy system to maintain than poor leadership. Put simply, the greatest testimony to the power of real leadership is what happens in its absence –very little.

A culture of leadership replaces rigid frameworks with loose communities of collaborative networks. Complex decisions are not reserved for someone sitting atop a hierarchical structure but are driven down and across the organization to unleash new levels of engagement and productivity. The best way to create a culture of leadership is to value and reward authentic and effective leadership. Create a culture based upon an ethos that empowers, attracts, differentiates, and sustains. The only culture that flourishes over the long haul is a culture of leadership.

Mike Myatt founder N2Growth | Top CEO Coach | Executive Search in Atlanta
Mike Myatt

Mike Myatt is a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs and their Boards of Directors. Widely regarded as America’s Top CEO Coach, he is recognized by Thinkers50 as a global authority on leadership. He is the bestselling author of Hacking Leadership (Wiley) and Leadership Matters… (OP), a Forbes leadership columnist, and is the Founder at N2Growth.

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