Choice Point: Do Not Let Your Culture Kill You

By Robert E. Quinn

A student wrote to me. He told of working for a large company that was committed to leadership development but not through investment in courses. Instead they invested in altering their culture and involving their managers in the process of deep change.

The company, for example, launched a high-performance work system initiative and required managers to become heavily invested in the cultural change necessary to implement it. He thought it would be easy but discovered that to make change and development possible, he had to engage a very challenging task. He had to more fully invest in both himself and those around him. His biggest discovery was that to help others make the change, he had to change first. He had to commit in a deeper way, and when he did, he found that he suddenly had increased influence. He and his people were then able to learn their way forward into the change process. He cited a passage from my book Building the Bridge as You Walk on It:

“In the transformational process, there is usually a general outcome that is desired, a result to be created. Yet this kind of vision emerges over time. It is a vision of how we become a new community as we pursue the desired result” and “organizations are transformed when we confront our own insecurity, selfishness and lack of courage.”

These words described what happened to him, he explained, and it was then that he first became an effective leader. He reflected on that fact as he spoke of his new job and a discovery he had recently made.

His new position is in government, and it requires him to constantly interact with two kinds of people. The individuals in one part of his work have extreme honesty and integrity. Individuals in the other part, he said, “make lying a form of life.” In reading the course materials and pondering his own life, he has come to a realization. Working with the latter group has had a deep impact; he has become distrustful. There is a great cost in becoming distrustful, and he has to reevaluate where life is taking him. The reevaluation may lead to another deep change.

Several things strike me. First, he learned the process of becoming an effective leader through experience on his first job. Later, in reading the book, he found words that helped him understand what he had done. I often hear this from people who read my books. They learned to lead transformation in real time. They did not have words to describe what they were doing. When they are later exposed to words and concepts that resonate with them, it is helpful because it allows them to actually learn more in the present from the experience that occurred in the past.

Second, with his leadership skills, he goes to a new job. There he also has an organizational experience that is part of the culture and almost unnoticeable. In constantly dealing with dishonest people, he is paying a price. He is internalizing negativity. In the first job, he came alive as a leader because of the requirements of a positive cultural change. In this job he is, in a sense, slowly dying because of a negative aspect of the normal culture. But now he is becoming aware, and his awareness is taking him to a choice point. That is what happens in deep change. Something makes us aware, awareness leads to a choice, choice leads to action, and action leads to development and learning.

I am grateful for messages like his. They make me more aware of how my own life is unfolding and lead me to more closely examine the culture that surrounds me.