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Why is it that, as a society, we are obsessed with leaders? From political leaders to leaders of sports teams to leaders of businesses, we continually seek out and remain fascinated by those who seem to embody the groups under their charge.

Let’s discuss this fascination and talk about the role of a leader in building organizational culture. We will talk about leadership that creates impactful company culture.

For example, much has been written about the roles of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg in the founding and growth of their organizations and the subsequent direction in which they have steered Apple and Facebook, respectively.

But why are leaders so important beyond being a human representation of that organization?

It is because a great leader sets the tone for organizational culture, and organizational culture is very often the driving force behind a business's success.

Here is how the role of a leader effectively shapes the organization that the captain.

The role of a leader is to promote a healthy culture

Organizational culture is not easy to define, as it would probably mean something different to different employees.

A straightforward definition would be,

The business approaches the tasks at hand through a structured layer of strong management or a more open, collaborative approach between departments.

"In fact, culture is so much more, from the way in which management and employees interact, to the expectations and responsibilities that are placed on all who work within the environment," - Thomas Brian, a business writer.

A leader is an integral part of the prevailing business culture and embodies that culture with their behaviors and the work systems they promote.

For example, A leader who is visible and accessible represents a culture that is open and collaborative, while a leader who shuts themselves away in their ivory tower is not sending that message.

Then there is how employees are rewarded and punished. Do rewards systems provide the types of rewards that employees are looking for (is it only about the money?), and do these rewards reach those who do the hard work?

In a business that displays a poor organizational culture, employees often point to a system that doesn't reward the individuals who expend the most effort yet is quick to apportion blame when things don't go according to plan.

It all begins with the leader.

Leadership drives company culture and engagement with the senior management group. This sets the tone of what happens in the rest of the business, and if that style of management is very linear, you can expect the prevailing culture to be linear too. And so it goes.

The role of a leader is to lead with a strong ethical compass

Ethics are a complicated subject in any walk of life because they are dictated to us from any number of factors that may change from person to person.

For example, if you build your ethical standpoint from religion, differing religions will inevitably lead to slightly different moral viewpoints.

Similarly, we all possess slightly different ethical approaches to life, but it is vitally important to understand that they do not need to be incompatible.

And so it is with a leader who seeks to lead an organization and instill in it an ethical approach. The first thing to understand is that not all people within a group may share the same ethical standpoints on every subject: that is unrealistic, so a leader who seeks to build an organization based on one large, the shared ethical structure is missing the point.

Instead, it is important to show that what is being created is based on an ethical belief system and that no one will be victimized depending on their agreement or disagreement with those ethics.

And in fact, most people will be willing to approve with ethical approaches that they are not necessarily 100% supportive of than an approach that seems to possess no ethical basis at all.

For example, and it is extreme, not everyone will agree if a business's approach is an all-out pursuit of financial gain. Indeed, many people will be put off working within that organization for that very reason.

Others will share that ethos, while the majority will be more pragmatic in their approach: they will perhaps not support it privately. Still, they will instead distinguish what they do from a professional and personal standpoint.

The final point is that more people will respect an ethos they disagree with than actively engage in one that they cannot define or seem contradictory. In this way, leaders set the benchmark for that ethical approach, ensuring that the approach is communicated and understood by all and never ostracizing those who may believe fundamentally in a different approach.

“Increasingly the public are not willing to engage with businesses that display contradictory ethical approaches, or simply dubious ones. As the embodiment of that organization, a visible leader with questionable ethics is not good for business,” Andy Sellers, an HR professional.

The role of a leader is to steer an organization through a crisis

It is an inevitable business component that there will be good and bad times. Good times are easy. It is the bad times that require strong and effective leadership. Indeed, leaders are often defined in relation to what they achieve through times of crisis – think Winston Churchill and the Second World War, for example.

It is the same in business: how does a leader react and steer their charges through rough waters? First and foremost, a leader must be strong during these times and engage the business to tackle the challenges facing it: a leader who runs for cover will not inspire anyone.

Similarly, an effective leader makes tough decisions when they need to be made. Hard hits must often be suffered if the majority of the business is to survive. This takes a considerable amount of guts and a refusal to be bowed by the pressures of the task at hand.

The role of a leader is to drive and change the company culture when it is necessary to do so

Company culture is not a static concept by any means. Imagine if a long-established business such as McDonald's had the same company culture today as it had in the 1970s. Not only would that '70s culture be completely incompatible with the 21st century, but the business also would probably have never lived to tell the tale.

Therefore, we understand that company culture must change if an organization is to survive and prosper and that motivation to change and the decision as to what direction that change will take must come from the top. As a very general rule, people do not react well to change, especially true of employees.

How leadership and culture are related?

Large companies in particular, and public bodies, often suffer from workforces that resist change to the detriment of the business.

Therefore, a leader must decide upon the course of the change that is to be made and inspire the workforce to follow the company's leadership into that change. That means embodying the new practices that you want to be seen.

For example, if a company requires new software to carry out its core business activities, a leader cannot be seen to be resisting that technology. They must embrace it more than anybody, even if it is understood that it is very difficult for that individual to do so.

The role of a leader is to do what is not always personally easy to do

Genuinely inspiring leaders seek to lead in a way that doesn't always come easily to them or in a way that challenges them the most, which means making personal sacrifices for the good of the cause.

It has been mentioned that leaders may not necessarily want to embrace the changes they have to lead their company into but must be seen to be doing it for the organization's health.

Similarly, a leader must follow the advice of senior management if that advice seems the best to take, even in the case where it may go against that leader's normal practices of work or personal ethos. In short, they must be practical, pragmatic, flexible, and understanding, which are all qualities that are not easy to exercise.

A leader must be so many things to so many people that they may not always be the person they want to be for themselves. Still, it is about the business's good, not the individual's interest, which an effective leader will always understand.


Leadership is a complex business, and leadership itself is challenging to define. According to traditional definitions, leadership creates compliance, respect, and cooperation (Anderson, Ford & Hamilton 1998). Still, increasingly leadership can also be defined as establishing a culture and approach that effectively meets company objectives.

In this changing landscape, influential leaders must operate, continuing to both embody and inspire the organization in which they lead.

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Martha Jameson

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Martha Jameson is a marketing specialist and contributor from UK.