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What leadership shadow do you cast?

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This post was excerpted from the Heidrick & Struggles report “The transformation mandate: Leadership imperatives for a hyperconnected world.” View the full report.

This post was written by Jim Hart and Larry Senn. Hart is president and CEO of the culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company. Senn is chairman and founder of Senn Delaney. Both are based in the Huntington Beach, Calif., office.


“A leader doesn’t just get the message across; he is the message.” — Warren Bennis

The importance of culture and its effects on organizational performance should by now be well known. Yet even as issues of organizational culture lie at the heart of merger clashes, strategy failures, and change initiatives, too many senior executives approach organizational culture as they might the weather: everyone talks about it as if there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Against this backdrop, it’s useful to remind leaders of the influence they can and do exert on the cultures of their organizations– for good or ill. In this excerpt from their seminal book, “Winning Teams–Winning Cultures,” Senn Delaney Chairman Larry Senn and President and CEO Jim Hart describe the concept of the “The Shadow of the Leader” and contend that only when the top team lives and breathes the changes it wants and expects from its organization will such changes succeed — and stick.

A few years ago, a CEO asked us if we could help shift one aspect of his company’s culture. It was a strong culture in many ways. They had high performance expectations, committed hard-working employees, good basic values, and fairly good performance. He felt they could go from good to great if they could collaborate better across the organization and get more synergies from the different business units.

As we started the cultural diagnostics, it became clear that they had turf issues between corporate and business units and between different functions. While the CEO wanted us to help “fix” the organization, it didn’t take long to see that the issues were largely a reflection of the senior team members. They were not fully aligned or mutually supportive. They didn’t speak with one voice to the organization. They were generally polite and non-confrontational, but they had a habit of appearing to agree on a decision in a meeting but then not supporting the decision outside the meeting.

As we dug deeper, we found that many of the same behaviors existed at the second level of leadership in the teams that reported to senior team members. We asked people at lower levels in the organization why they didn’t collaborate better, and they said in various ways, “Why should we? Our bosses don’t.”

Lack of collaboration is only one cultural trait impacted by the shadow of the leaders. You could substitute many things, including: blaming, stress, lack of coaching, resistance to change, hectic, hierarchical, risk-averse, and so on. The central finding is that, over time, organizations tend to take on the characteristics of their leaders. This was easy to see in the field studies that were conducted of smaller firms. The values, habits, and biases of the founders and dominant leaders left an imprint on the organization.

It’s clearly visible in companies such as Wal-Mart, where Sam Walton had such a distinct impact on the culture. The impact Herb Kelleher had on Southwest Airlines is also apparent. The same is true in all organizations, at least from a historical perspective. There are often “ghosts” of past leaders evident. To better understand that, just ask about the values and preferences of dominant founders of a company or early leaders who left their mark. Chances are you can still see at least remnants that have made an impact many years later.

Because of the size and complexity of organizations today, the most important shadows come from teams at the top; specifically, the CEO’s team and the teams of those who report to the CEO. Therefore, if you want to shape any element of your culture, your teams need to model the desired behavior.

The shadow phenomenon

The shadow phenomenon exists for anyone who is a leader of any group, including a parent in a family. That is because people tend to take on the characteristics of those who have power or influence over them.

One of the most intimate and far-reaching examples of this shadow concept happens when parents, perhaps aware of their own imperfections, exhort their children to “Do as I say, not as I do.” Unfortunately, children generally tune out that message and mimic the behaviors they see. The message of any parent, or business leader, will be drowned out if the actions conflict with the words.

The role of the leader, at work and at home, requires modeling the desired behavior and letting others see the desired values in action. To become effective leaders, we must become aware of our shadows and then learn to have our actions match our message.

A former CEO of one Fortune 500 company felt so strongly about the importance of consistency between actions and words, he once said: “I would submit to you that it is unnatural for you to come in late and for your people to come in early. I think it is unnatural for you to be dishonest and your people to be honest. I think it is unnatural for you to not handle your finances well and then to expect your people to handle theirs well. In all these simple things, I think you have to set the standard.”*

The head of an organization or a team casts a shadow that influences the employees in that group. The shadow may be weak or powerful, yet it always exists. It is a reflection of everything the leader does and says.

An example of the “shadow impact”

We learned a real-life lesson about the shadow of leaders early in the history of Senn Delaney.

J.L. Hudson, a division of one of the top U.S. department store companies, Dayton Hudson Corporation in Detroit (now Target Corporation), asked us to help them work on improving customer service, with the goal of becoming more like the high-end department store Nordstrom. We piloted the process in six stores, working with the store managers, with mixed success. Some stores had measurable increases in service levels and increased market share, while others didn’t. In fact, the results were almost directly proportional to our success in shifting the store manager’s focus from operations to service and his or her management style. It demonstrated how the leader’s shadow of influence crossed the store. This is what we would later term “The Shadow of the Leader.”

We concluded that our mixed success was a result of starting to shape cultures at the wrong level in the organization. We discovered this in an interesting way. When we asked sales associates why they weren’t more attentive or friendlier to customers, they would ask (in different ways), “Who’s friendly and attentive to me?” When we would ask their department managers the same question, we got the same answer. That continued on up through the assistant store manager, the store manager, the district manager, the vice president of stores, and on up to the executive committee. We concluded that fixing the stores was similar to family therapy; you have to include the parents.

Soon after, the CEO of The Broadway Department Stores in California, later known as Federated Department Stores, Inc. (now Macy’s), asked if we would develop a customer service process for them. We politely said, “Only if we can begin with the executive committee.” That led to several consecutive years of increased sales and market share for The Broadway.

All too often, leaders approve training programs dealing with issues such as leadership development or culture shaping but don’t attend them as participants or visibly work on the concepts themselves. More often than not, as a result, these programs are unsuccessful. That is why it is critical that any major change initiative start at the top.

Cultural implications

One of the most common complaints throughout organizations is that the senior team is not “walking the talk.” Whenever a company begins to make statements about desired behaviors and people don’t see those behaviors being modeled at the top, there is a lack of integrity. This can take various forms:

  • The organization is asking people to be more open to change, yet the top leaders do not exhibit changed behaviors.
  • Increased teamwork and cross-organizational collaboration is preached, yet the senior team does not collaborate across divisional lines.
  • The organization is seen cutting back on expenses, yet the senior team doesn’t change any of its special perks.
  • People are asked to be accountable for results, while the senior team members continue to subtly blame one another for lack of results.

We have found that the fastest way to create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy about cultural change is to have the top leaders individually and collectively shift their own behaviors. They don’t have to be perfect; they just have to deal themselves into the same game they are asking others to play. When leadership, team-building, and culture-shaping training are a part of the change process, the senior team should be the first team to take part.

Anyone who has ever conducted training processes with middle management knows the limitations of starting at this level. When attendees are asked about the value of the session, the classic responses are, “My boss is the one who should be attending,” or “It sounds great, but that’s not the way it is around here; just look at my manager.”

Because of the critical need for the senior team to role-model the new culture, it is the group that first needs to come together to define the guiding behaviors for the rest of the organization. Whenever this is delegated to a committee under the senior team, or to expert writers, the statements of values may read well but are not owned by and don’t reside in the hearts of the senior team members. When the values don’t live in the senior team, the probability that the organization will live the values is low.

As a firm that specializes in culture shaping, Senn Delaney has an unwritten policy that we won’t design or conduct a culture-shaping architecture for clients unless we can first work with the team that leads the organization, or a major semi-autonomous group, and its leader. It’s not that we don’t want the business; it’s just that we know that without a positive leadership shadow, the process is unlikely to work.

In order to build a winning culture, the top teams must be seen by the organization as living the values and walking the talk. Based on the size of the organization, it is usually the top 100 to 500 people that really set the culture.

*See Lynne Joy McFarland, Larry E. Senn, and John R. Childress, “21st Century Leadership: Dialogues with 100 Top Leaders,” Executive Excellence Publishing, 1994, page 151.