People See, People Do

Leaders Affect Organizational Culture (Whether They Like it Or Not)

My dad was injured in the Korean War, a few years before I was born. Because of that injury, he walks with a limp to this day. As a young boy, I unconsciously emulated him. I just thought that was the way grown men walked.

When I was three or four, I remember Mom saying to me, “Michael, you don’t need to walk with a limp. Dad walks that way because he was hurt in the war.” I still walked that way for another year or so, simply because I wanted to be like my dad.

Law, in replicate

This was the “law of replication” in action. This law says that like begets like. Dogs beget dogs. Trees beget trees. And people beget people.

This law also applies to leadership. If you are a leader, like it or not, you will replicate yourself. Your followers will adopt your behaviors and habits. If you have a strong personality, they may even mimic your mannerisms without meaning to do so because of the human brain’s mirror system.

Years ago, I remember visiting one of our clients at his corporate headquarters. I was amused to see his staff imitating him, down to the cadence of his speech and the inflection of his voice. It was as if they were paid impersonators.

You set the tone

This has powerful implications for leadership. Unconsciously, your people will mimic you. This means:

  • If you are late to meetings, your people will be late to meetings.
  • If you don’t take notes in meetings, your people won’t take notes in meetings.
  • If you are angry and defensive when you get negative feedback, your people will be angry and defensive when they get negative feedback.

That’s bad news. Fortunately, they will copy your good behaviors too. This means:

  • If you are humble and grateful, your people will be humble and grateful.
  • If you are warm and engaging, your people will be warm and engaging.
  • If you are even-tempered and unflinching under fire, your people will strive to be even-tempered and unflinching under fire.

Be the change

Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I would add, “Be the change you want to see in your organization.”

If you don’t like the culture of your department, division, or company, start by changing yourself. Set a new standard. Let your own word become flesh. This is the most powerful thing you can do to change your world.

Remember, you are the prototype for your followers. Your actions speak far louder than your words will. You must pay careful attention to your own behavior, because you will replicate yourself through your organization.

If you are a living example of what it takes to go to the next level, then that’s where the folks under your supervision will ultimately go. And that is a very good place to be.

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