By Walter V. Wendler
An effective leader must do everything within his or her power to create a strong organizational culture. Teamwork, knowledge of process, values shared by all workers, a clear understanding of organizational purpose, and a shared goal of attaining that purpose are the foundation for a positive culture according to Edgar Schein, the father of understanding organizational culture.
Herb Kelleher had a fix on how to create a strong culture. He said in a typically disarming fashion, “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.” The power in this thought is simply that love exists person to person. In addition, real love is always outward bound. Inward bound love is narcissism.
Self-centeredness wreaks havoc on any organization both for the individuals who comprise it and the goods, products and services produced. The power of Herb’s perspective is not just a touchy-feely engagement. According to a Strategy+Business, Herb’s contention was that at Southwest Airlines, “People are business.” Nice sentiment, but what value does it have in the marketplace? Well, by 2004, the Southwest Airlines that started in 1971 became the fourth largest airline in the United States with 30 consecutive years of profitability. In addition, and more astoundingly, $1 invested in Southwest Airlines’ 1972 public offering was worth $1400 in 2004.
Put people first. For Southwest Airlines, it was about putting employees first—even in front of customers. For Herb, customers occupied second chair, and stockholders were the caboose. This is a powerful testimony to what happens when a corporate culture values the work that people do regardless of the position they hold. A few things must happen if that is to be the case.
Precept One: Leaders should do everything possible to accept and even celebrate well-intended failures. When someone in the organization attempts in good conscience to do something right, good, or just in response to the need of someone served, and something goes awry, that is not failure. Instead, it may be the highest form of accomplishment. Fear of failure drives people who are there to serve into a mindset of no service at all, a mindset of self-preservation. Life is choked out of the heart of the servant and the soul of the enterprise.
Precept Two: Leaders should welcome dissenting opinions intended to move the organization forward to greater heights of service. In too many organizational cultures, yes-men and yes-women rule the roost, and quality wilts just as a tree starved of water dies. Healthy differences of perspective create strength, not weakness.
Precept Three: People must have confidence in leadership meaning what it says and saying what it means. Clarity in vision that people can easily grasp and embrace is essential. An unclear sense of purpose of leadership increases as proximity to the point of service decreases. The enterprise and the customer both lose.
Precept Four: There must be passion for purpose. Everyone at every level must sense that everyday actions help meet the primary objective of the enterprise. If the worker bee cannot connect the dots back to primary purpose, the organization will fail miserably. Importantly, fault lies with leadership. This morning when I came to work I had a conversation with Marilyn, who cleans my office. She told me that even though she is not an employee of the University—she works for a contracted maintenance company—our students are her students. She felt an obligation to clean the buildings, “To help students get an education.” How powerfully effective would be our university if everyone, from myself to this custodial worker, expressed that passion in action.
Precept Five: If leaders do not champion the purpose of the organization every day in thought and deed, the organization will fail. Our university is here to serve students, and, as a public institution, the taxpayers of the state of Texas and the Panhandle. But our first priority in service is to faculty—to create a place where faculty can ply their craft. Such a sense of purpose will elevate the act of teaching to where it must be in the framework of actions that comprise the University. This happens at the very first contact that a student has with the University. For many that’s a campus visit or an application for admission. There should be in those processes a purposeful commitment by all engaged to connect the students’ desire to learn with the faculty members’ desire to teach. Processes should be crisp, clean, efficient, timely and painless. This is value-based leadership according to Brent Gleeson, combat veteran, and author of “Taking Point: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail-Safe Principles for Leading Through Change.”
Strong organizations put energy where service occurs.
Strong universities do the same.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com