Leadership behind Organizational Culture

As a final year student at the job-hunting stage, I often ponder on the type of environment that I would love to work in. After some research and self-analysis using OB materials, I came to realize that an open and people-centred culture is what I feel most attracted to.

I am sure we were all impressed by the ordinary heroes of the Taj discussed in class earlier this semester. As mentioned in class, culture is a set of values, norms, guiding beliefs and understandings that is shared by members of an organization and taught to new members as the correct way to think, feel and behave. It is the unwritten, feeling of the organization. When new recruits join an organization to be part of the family, they discover, observe, pick up, and imitate – I would say culture emerges out of social interactions and is adapted through experiential learning. Hence, it may have variation no matter how hard a company strive to achieve homogeneity, due to different interpretation and culture diffusion.

This links to my next favorite topic – leadership. In my opinion, a strong culture is often built by a leader who has great charisma, possesses empathy, and is able to relate to people’s emotions – regardless of the vision that is being articulated. For example, one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, who was able to preach nationalism, change the mentality of Germans back then and shape the entire nation. The success of building such strong nation culture was due to his exertion of transformational leadership. Despite his ruthless behaviour, Hitler was no doubt a great orator who was able to deliver powerful speeches and capture the emotions of his audience, even at the national level.

In the present, one of my favourite leaders is Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, who practices servant leadership. Southwest Airlines is almost a replicate of Taj hotel but in different industry, with executives and employees constantly striving to improve their service, culture, and to generate greater customer loyalty. During his tenure as CEO of Southwest, Kelleher’s colourful personality built a corporate culture that made Southwest employees “well known for taking themselves lightly – often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs – but their jobs seriously”. Kelleher gained much respect in the company – and in the industry itself – as an empathetic leader who had made Southwest the major U.S. airline it is today with a people-centred culture. The values, beliefs and norms still exist even today as according to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.”

Here’s a speech by Kelleher on people as the business of people 🙂


This concludes my link between culture and leadership – I believe that a decent pay might be enough to get people to work on time, but beyond the pay it is the inspiring purpose communicated to people that encourages them to go the extra mile.  A person leading a business, an organization, or even a country needs to emphasize not just on nuts and bolts, techniques and standards, but on culture.

A culture can be created formally using symbols, rules, songs, uniforms, slogans, etc., but true leaders would be able to transcend his vision to the people around and make it felt deep down their hearts. Employees who are inspired and driven will possess desired behaviour, regardless of management’s presence. Case study on the Taj incident is a good demonstration on how employees react towards unplanned situations under the influence of strong company culture. Formal system may collapse due when chaos occur, and this is when the informal side of culture steps up to guide employees’ response and drive them towards the company’s ultimate direction.

To add in a little bit more since formal structure of culture was mentioned…

I think companies should take note of culture and emotions when implementing changes in the organizations. Emotions are triggered as employees go through the processes of organizational transformation. Attitudes to existing culture also affects their responses towards change. If values throughout the organization are congruent, employees tend to react to change more positively. People become more engaged with the change when empathy is shown.

I was blessed with the opportunity to work in a start-up whereby the culture is immensely strong. I could feel it on my first day of work – the CEO gathered everyone for a pep talk, everyone was super committed and had strong beliefs in the company’s vision, etc. I think this is why my CEO had faith in us and was able to leave us on our own so often for business trips. And I hope that I would be able to work in a company with similar culture too!

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