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How culture can be a competitive advantage

Leaders must constantly amplify their vision for company culture and continually adapt to changes that can enhance it, writes Mark Miller.

5 min read



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Leaders around the world understand the value of a strong culture. My team’s research for my forthcoming book, Culture Rules, confirms this. We talked to, or surveyed, more than 6,000 leaders and frontline associates from 10 countries about the topic of organizational culture and 72% indicated that culture is the most important driver of performance. We also asked leaders to rank their priorities — creating and maintaining culture ranked 12th. This article is not about why this gap exists; it is about how to close it.

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Our team went to work to make the topic of culture more tangible, tactical and approachable for leaders. We wanted to determine the irreducible minimum activities a leader must engage in to create a thriving, sustainable and dynamic High Performance Culture. We landed on three rules.

Rule #1 Aspire — The leader must share their hopes and dreams for their culture.

On the surface, this may sound easy enough. However, it is amazing how many leaders cannot do this in a manner that is clear, simple and repeatable. Too many are tripped up by the language. Should I have a mission? A vision? Where does purpose fit in? Are values important? Does the ethos matter? All of these questions can be helpful, but they can also get the leader and the organization twisted in knots. All of these are tools at a leader’s disposal to share your hopes and dreams for your culture. Select as few or as many of these mechanisms as you deem helpful. Remember the test: Is your cultural aspiration clear, simple and repeatable?

Rule #2 Amplify — Ensure the cultural aspiration is reinforced continually.

Here’s the truth about Amplify — there are countless ways to reinforce the cultural aspiration. This can be overwhelming. Therefore, our team focused on finding the highest return activities a leader could personally engage in. The number one, highest ranking activity was Role Modeling. 

People always watch the leader. Therefore, our actions have a huge influence on the culture of our organizations. One of my favorite historical examples is Alexander the Great. He talked often about the values he wanted his soldiers to exemplify — chief among them was courage and bravery. These values were amplified when, in every major battle, Alexander led from the front. His courage under fire fueled their courage and helped shape their culture. People always watch the leader. What are your people learning from watching you?

Rule #3 Adapt — Always work to enhance the culture.

This third rule is tricky. This is, in part, because leaders love to get things done. And, if you have a clear aspiration and you amplify sufficiently, you will begin to see your culture move toward your aspiration. Well done! Mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.

The trap inherent in declaring victory is that you may move into protection mode. If you attempt to shrink-wrap your culture, you will suffocate it. A healthy, vibrant and dynamic culture is a living and breathing entity. Enhancements provide the ongoing oxygen every culture needs. Sometimes these enhancements are targeted at eliminating toxins. In other instances, they are focused on leveraging existing strengths or adding new capabilities. In any case, leaders must always work to enhance the culture.

Spotting cultural canaries in the coal mine

Let’s rewind a bit and focus on the issue of toxins. How does a leader know if they have begun to invade your culture? First, let’s define a toxin as any pattern of unhealthy and unproductive behavior. Are you consistently seeing the behaviors you want to see? Are people fully engaged, collaborating and committed to the aspiration you set forth for the enterprise? Or are you seeing unhealthy competition, lack of cooperation, apathy or loss of procedural discipline? To detect these behaviors, good or bad, you need an early warning system. To adapt well, you must listen well.

A century ago, miners used canaries as their early warning system to identify the toxins deep underground. Their feathered friends were highly sensitive to the poisonous gases the miners often encountered. They could detect issues far before they became hazardous to the men. When the bird stopped chirping or passed out, the miners knew to evacuate. This is the story that many know. What is lesser known is the extent to which the miners worked to save the birds.

A breakthrough came with the invention of the “Revival Cage.” This cage had glass walls and a door that could be sealed in the event of an emergency. Each cage came equipped with its own oxygen tank. When the bird would show the first signs of distress, the miner would close the glass door to seal the cage and turn the valve releasing pure oxygen into the cage in an effort to revive the bird.

The parallels are striking. Today, if a leader is listening and paying attention, we should see early warning sign of toxins. When we do, we can intervene — we control the valve! We can release pure oxygen into our culture to purge the organization of the toxins that threaten our future. The leader must act.

This leads me to the most significant finding from our research: Leaders Animate Culture. Literally, leaders bring culture to life, or not. Every organization will have a culture. Will it be a culture by design or default? Only the leader can decide.


Mark Miller is a business leader, a communicator and an international bestselling author. He currently serves as the Vice President of High Performance Leadership for Chick-fil-A, Inc. Mark began his writing career almost 25 years ago when he partnered with Ken Blanchard to write “The Secret.” Since then, he has published 11 titles. His latest book, Culture Rules is now available.

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