Embodied: How a leader shapes culture

blog May 09, 2024

By Steve Chalke

A movement leader’s role is never simply to cast the vision, but also to embody it: to be a walking, talking, living demonstration of it. Only then will it resonate with others. Only then is it capable of fueling and renewing those who are being asked to work hard to bring it to fruition.

People follow people—for better or for worse. So, when a leader fails to “walk the talk,” inevitably, a culture will begin to establish itself that is out of alignment with the vision, mission, identity and story of the organization. It is only as an organization’s behaviors resonate with and reflect its vision—its meaning-giving story—that it can hope to develop an authentic and healthy culture.

How the leader is, is how the team will be. It’s a daunting thought, but the leader matters that much. A leader’s character and attention to what matters to others are crucial. So, the way they greet people or write emails, whether they bother to follow up on requests that are made of them (even when they are busy), how they talk with and listen to a junior staff member, whether they apologize when they upset someone, own up when they make a mistake, or give the credit to those who did the work rather than take it for themselves—in these small everyday actions will be the secret of the organization’s success or failure.

The kind of leadership that brings this about isn’t about power or control; it’s never about policing the rules, the office handbook or the policy. Ethos-driven leadership is based on something very different: it’s about authority rather than power, and it’s the only way to influence and create a culture that lines up with the mission.

A life-long mentor of mine—one of the best and most consistent leaders I have ever met—explained this difference in this simple way. Authority, he said, is derived from love, whereas power is built on control. His mother, he said, was poor, tiny and had little formal education or power, but had huge authority, which she earned by way of her countless sacrificial acts across the years.

So, no matter how competent a person is, they will never enjoy sustained and lasting success unless they can effectively lead themselves, engage, influence and collaborate with others, as well as work to continuously improve and renew their skills. These principles sit at the very heart of all personal, team and organizational effectiveness.

Ethos is the ancient Greek word meaning “character.” It was originally used by Aristotle, the great philosopher, to refer to a person’s character or personality, though now it’s more often used to describe the characteristic spirit of a culture, a community or an organization. Ethos is the word that describes “the way we do things around here.” And, whether intentionally or unintentionally, every organization has an ethos. A healthy ethos takes time to develop.

But when it’s invested in and is deliberately and carefully aligned to the organization’s vision, together they create the engine room for success. However, whenever ethos is neglected, there is bound to be trouble ahead both internally and externally.

The extent to which the ethos is embedded in the behaviors of those who lead and inhabit the organization always defines its ability to deliver its work. If the culture in an organization isn’t right, don’t expect to get its vision or strategy delivered. But when the ethos is experienced and practiced by everyone, the organization gets stronger, and so achieving its vision and mission becomes far easier. When people are happy at work, they tend to become people who will work hard at traveling the extra mile to deliver the vision.

When a leader embodies the ethos, gradually other team members will approach their work with an aligned attitude. But if it’s not done, the organization will become an unhappy place where staff, and especially any volunteers, don’t stay for long. It is often the case that those who choose to leave an organization are actually doing something rather different—they are choosing to leave a leader or leadership they don’t believe in.

Organizations are made up of people, which means that an organizational ethos is only as real as the way it is, or isn’t, lived out by the people who make up that organization. At Oasis, whenever our staff are not happy, or are distracted by their working conditions, or if there are tensions among them, we are left fighting not just the war on poverty and its impacts, but the battle to gain the full focus, attention and support of our staff.

So how do we create a different and trust-filled culture? A culture where our staff want to come to work. Where they don’t take time out sick because they are too stressed, and know that they can approach their leader about any concern and it’s not too much trouble. Where they know they can trust their leaders to do the right thing when things get difficult, and feel that they can make a mistake and won’t be blamed. Where they are confident to say what they think, and ultimately stay because they are happy at work.

Organizational culture is never neutral, and it takes some serious intentionality to create a healthy one; one that is shaped by and aligned to the underpinning story which the organization owns. An organization may formally embrace an ethos, but it only works if it is real enough for every staff member or volunteer to experience it, as well as have a role in nurturing it. This requires investment: building it into every process, policy and procedure, into your staff induction, into your training and development.

The inside of an organization and the way it works always affects the outside and the way its work is received. How an organization behaves with its staff, customers, clients, beneficiaries and supporters always gives away the truth about what really matters to its leaders. The apple never falls far from the tree. The goal is for an organization’s ethos to become its identity: the way that its clients, partners and service users encounter it.

Wherever and whenever you look at any practice in that organization you should experience the same behaviors and culture. It’s this integrity, the consistency between who the organization says it is and how it behaves, which is the basis on which that precious commodity trust (which we talked about in the last chapter) is built.

At Oasis we choose to pour huge energy into the never-ending process of developing new tools to explore our ethos, and we invest heavily in our staff and volunteers’ understanding of it.

We’ve discovered that we have to be both explicit and consistent about this task to make progress, and so build a focus on it, in as many creative ways as possible, into our ongoing rhythm of life; everything from our training programs to our board meetings and our inductions to our regular staff updates. We have miles to go on all this, and always will, but we know it is important to keep working hard to get there.

The Oasis vision statement is simple: “To build healthy local communities, where everyone is included, can make a contribution, and reach their God-given potential.” It drives our passionate belief that each human being is uniquely valuable and of equal importance. Everyone has something to bring and we all need each other. Everyone matters. Everyone belongs. And because we’re committed to inclusion, we’re equally committed to ending inequality, injustice and exclusion wherever and however we can.

It is this vision that drives our ethos and which we sum up in our five ethos values: a passion to include everyone, a desire to treat everyone equally, respecting differences, a commitment to healthy and open relationships, a deep sense of hope that things can change and be transformed and a sense of perseverance to keep going for the long haul.

Our goal is that these values are felt whenever someone encounters us and that they permeate everything we do. To help us with this, we’ve developed what we call the “Oasis 9 Habits,” which are an invitation to a way of life characterized by being compassionate, patient, humble, joyful, honest, hopeful, considerate, forgiving and self-controlled.

Together, our five values and nine habits articulate our ethos: our way of being more fully ourselves. They form the lens through which we see all our work; a plumbline by which we check everything; a moral compass that helps all our staff and volunteers to check their motives. They are designed to keep us facing our true north.

From our volunteer and staff inductions to our continuous professional development and our leadership training, to the agendas of our board meetings and the shape of our job descriptions, all we do is deliberately shaped around them. Of course, there will always be a gap between our principles and our performance; our desire and our delivery. But, in the end, what we really believe will leak out through our behaviors.

Trust is like money in the bank and the more deposits you make, the more credit you have, leadership is also about being willing to spend it in the cause of encouraging people to move away from the old land toward the new promised land. I sometimes meet leaders who are keen to tell me just how well they get on with everyone. I worry that they miss the point. The task of a leader is to lead the culture, and that will sometimes involve bringing challenge, which takes courage.

But that’s what all those deposits in the bank of trust are for. Rather than simply saving trust up and patting ourselves on the back because we’re so popular, the point of leadership is to know how to spend the trust we have accrued wisely. Of course, as we do this, we also need to know when we’re running low on capital, and when we’ve got ourselves slightly into the red. When that happens—and sometimes it should—you know it’s time to stop spending and to start saving up again.

But the point is this: it is always a leader’s task to embody the ethos and to lead and shape the culture. If we don’t do that, the only thing we’re really doing is leading our organizations into obscurity. And, in the end, it’s always our little behaviors and attitudes that give away what we actually believe and who we actually are. Behavior always follows belief! It is those instant responses, when the pressure is on, before we have a chance to moderate our responses—the responses that come from us under pressure, just like when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste—what comes out is what is inside; there is no disguising it.

I have a friend called Dave. He’s a vicar, and he tells the story of a conversation he had with a grieving woman about her mother, whose funeral he was preparing to take. He asked her if there was a story or incident that illustrated or encapsulated what her mother was like. After a brief pause, she replied, “When I was a small child, I broke a treasured vase. It was my mum’s most valued possession: a family heirloom, passed down through many generations. Knowing how important it was, I screamed as it crashed to the floor and broke into a hundred pieces. But when my mother rushed into the room, she appeared relieved, not angry. Gathering me into her arms, she said, ‘Thank God, I thought you were hurt.’” With tears in her eyes, the woman explained to Dave that this was what her mother was like, before she added, “My mum always told me that I was her treasure. And that was the day I discovered it was true.”

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