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The ministry of culture

Leaders can set the tone, but they can't force culture. When they try, they end up running a ministry of culture.

4 min read




Someone at my firm came up with a now oft-used quip: “Strategy without execution is only theory.”

We regularly share that admonishment with one another and with clients, because even the best-laid marketing plans are seldom well-executedand sometimes not at all. There’s a reason for that, reflected in another common dictum which didn’t originate with us (and has been attributed to so many people that it has almost become a cliché):“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

To be sure, it would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the importance of corporate culture. Yet it remains strategy’s bugaboo. Why? Because too many leaders misunderstand what might be called the “ministry of culture.”

I realize the phrase “ministry of culture” is creepy. It’s meant to be, because it sets up an interesting juxtaposition. At one end would be something like the actual “Ministry of Culture” in the former Soviet Union, which persists (in only slightly different form) in today’s Russian Federation. The Ministry of Culture’s official task is “implementation of the Strategy of State Cultural Policy until 2030 approved by the Order of the Russian Federation Government of 29 February 2016.” Ick.

This is not what any respectable leader should want. In Communist Romania, the Zhdanov Doctrine “prescribed the obedience of all actors in cultural life towards the new regime, correlated with state control of the whole ‘cultural chain’, from budgetary resources and printing facilities, to the very content of cultural products that had to be adapted and aligned to the new Soviet directed standards.” That’s more than a mouthful — it’s a crime against humanity.

But there’s another way to understand the “ministry of culture.” Rather than being an innocuous-sounding label for an oppressive government regime, “ministry” can also mean an act or instance of service. Its etymology actually connotes duty and stewardship. In verb form, to minister to someone is to put their interests first; to serve them.

This juxtaposition frames, in a somewhat stark way, the choice every company has to make. Statism or servanthood. Power or influence. Rules or relationships. The “ministry of culture” can be interpreted either way. But one will have your employees rolling their eyes (if not outright rebelling) while the other will create a positive, lasting environment in which strategy can thrive. While we would all choose the latter, we too often inadvertently bring about the former.

Some of the more extroverted among us — the ones who suggest “fun committees” and organize team-building workshops and retreats — are blind to their own “corporate cultural imperialism,” like fish who have no consciousness of the water in which they’re swimming. It’s not due to a lust for power or anything sinister; they simply see culture-building through a different lens than their more introverted counterparts (which represent one-third to one-half of the workforce). To an introvert, “corporate retreat” means getting away from everyone at work.

No company aspires to culture-by-diktat, but many well-intentioned initiatives are perceived that way because genuine culture arises organically. It spreads naturally. It can’t be controlled (as totalitarian governments continue to learn the hard way). It is top-down, in the sense that organizations tend to take on the values and personality of their leaders (think Herb Kelleher at Southwest, Howard Shultz at Starbucks and Richard Branson at Virgin). But culture can’t be forced from the top down. That’s a sure path to resentment and rebellion, whether passive or aggressive.

If your culture isn’t working, you probably should first look to senior leadership, because that’s likely where the root of the problem is. But recognize that culture is caught, not taught, and that top-down solutions rarely work. If change needs to be made, it must start with a change in mindset. Rather than forcing on your team a Ministry of Culture, foster a culture of ministry.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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