Blog – Great Culture Requires More Than Leadership

Dominic Gourley, Relationship Manager, Human Synergistics Australia

To have a great culture, great leaders are vital… but they are not sufficient.

Great leaders building great cultures is the subject of countless books, articles and posts. No doubt great leaders are vital to creating a great culture. They are requirement… but they are not sufficient on their own.

Great leaders can say all the right things, role model the right behaviours, send the right messages about what’s expected… but still can’t move the dial on behaviour in the organisation.

The messages sent by the organisation itself have to be aligned

Culture is created by more than just leadership – it’s the net effect of all the messages people receive from the way the organisation functions.

What messages do you send with your structure? What messages do you send with how you do appraisals and rewards? What messages do you send with the way you design people’s jobs? What messages do you send through the company’s mission statement?

Sometimes great leaders say one thing about how people should behave but the system is saying something completely different.

“A bad system will beat a good person every time” (Deming, 1993).   

Great leaders talk about the importance of teamwork and cooperation…

… but if people are only rewarded for hitting their individual target then the message people hear is: “look out for yourself and put your needs first.”

… but if performance is only talked about on a department by department KPI level then the message people hear is “It’s us against them.”

… but if jobs are designed to be highly compartmentalised then the message people hear is “our job starts here and finishes there and what happens afterwards doesn’t matter.”

When leaders say...

Great leaders talk about the importance of individuals using their initiative…

… but if the company has a highly centralised structure then the message people hear is “we don’t trust you to make decisions.”

… but if there isn’t a clearly defined mission that people actually believe in and are excited about then the message people hear is “what you do doesn’t matter so don’t bother.”

… but if people have jobs where they have to operate within a strict set of guidelines then the message people hear is “don’t think, just do what you’re told”. (‘Idiot proofing’ the process implies that I’m a what?)

Use initiative to solve problems

Great Leaders talk about the importance of Innovation / Safety / Agility / Customer Service / Accountability / Risk taking / … … … and organisational systems can find a way to send messages that undermine them all.

If you want to create a great culture you need more than great leadership – you need to get the way the organisation operates to send the right messages as well. Organisations send messages through their mission/philosophy, structures, HR systems, job design and the way leaders communicate (from Robert A. Cooke’s How Culture Works Model).

Cause and Effect

How have you seen organisations send messages that undermine what the leader was saying?



I work for Human Synergistics – leaders in Organisational Culture and Leadership development. We support an amazing community of External Consultants and Internal Change Agents who use our suite of diagnostics and tools to Change The World One Organisation at a Time®. If you’d like to know more you can contact me on LinkedIn or email



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