The importance the shadow of a leader has on culture change

Joanna Boxer

At Walking the Talk, we believe culture is created through the unspoken messages people receive, through behaviours of others , key systems and business processes, and symbols which  all send messages about what is valued. It is leaders whose behaviour casts the largest shadow across the organisation, and as such has the biggest impact on culture change. 

Looking up for guidance

Every behaviour exhibited in an organisation sends a message, but the most powerful is undeniably how leaders act. What they do is scrutinised more closely and valued higher by employees than the behaviour of anyone else. Employees look to their leader to set an example, to behave in the way they expect everyone else to. So if, for example, a leader spends all their time in meetings with Finance and is rarely seen with anyone else, that sends a clear message about what they value. People quickly pick up on this, ape this behaviour, and a culture is created. That is why the shadow of the leader is so important, and especially in driving culture change. The key is to help leaders understand the impact their behaviour has.

Your actions drown out your words

We often quote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Walking the Talk – ‘Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ Often leaders don’t realise or fully appreciate how their behaviour is perceived and judged. They often focus a lot on what they want or need to say, yet what people observe them actually doing sends a far louder and stronger message. This is why it’s so important for leaders to walk their talk, for their words and actions to be aligned. If they say recognition is important, they have to do it regularly. Otherwise, you get the ‘say-do gap’, which creates scepticism and undermines culture change efforts.

Understanding your shadow

Given the importance of their behaviour and the strength of the message that it sends, once we have supported  an organisation  to design its culture blueprint, we prioritise work with leaders. When you’re trying to change culture, leaders must shift their shadow first, so it’s vital they get help to understand how their actions are currently being interpreted, and what needs to be different. How do we do this?

  1. A peer survey – so leaders get a change to self-reflect and receive feedback from their direct reports and key stakeholders about where their behaviour is vs. where it needs to be for the desired culture to be created, and the impact this is having on the organisation. This often creates a jolt of self-awareness and realisation about the level of influence their behaviour has, and triggers new thoughts and fresh perspectives on what they need to change.

  2. 1-1 coaching and mentoring – deep diving with the leader, looking at the results of the survey. This is where we help leaders understand their role in culture change in greater depth, become creative with possibilities on how to shift certain behaviours, and get them to commit to new ways of thinking and acting.

  3. Be practical – identify day-today opportunities and moments that matter with their team and the broader organisation for leaders to behave in a different way. For example, if you want a culture of greater empowerment, how could you demonstrate that in your next team meeting? It’s all about being actionable, otherwise if people see nothing has changed they become sceptical and disengaged.

Behaviour creates belief

If people see their leader behaving in a new way, that displays the espoused culture they want, it creates belief that change is possible. It sends a powerful message throughout the organisation not only that expectations are now different, but that we can all shift our behaviours. That example, encouragement and excitement is contagious, and it’s the platform upon which successful culture change is built upon. 

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