The Role of Leaders as Cultural Umbrellas

What colour is your cultural leadership umbrella?

A little while back, I was asked to do some leadership culture development coaching with executive program co-ordinators in a community-linking agency. Everyone was on-board with this initiative and it was making good headway until there was a sudden, unexpected change of CEO.

Virtually overnight, the leadership culture program was cancelled at the CEO’s behest to the chagrin of many, along with other programs on strategy and workplace well-being, in favour of diverting attention to what he termed “real operational aspects of the business”.

Early in his rule, he imposed a firm hand of fear over the workplace and clamped down on even talking about culture, which he dismissed in one of his early meetings with a memorable edict: “Culture is what it is. You can’t do anything to change it, so why waste time and effort on it?”

Not for the first time, I now realise, I’d come across what I have come to call a ‘black-umbrella leader’.

1. Leaders as Cultural Umbrellas

Contrary to this CEO’s staggeringly incorrect cultural edict, it’s widely known how organisational success is in large part a reflection of healthy culture, where great leaders act like cultural umbrellas, sheltering teams from adverse influences, keeping them protected, supported, safe and behaviourally sound and secure.

  • Under their umbrella, people know their purpose, can perform at their peak and feel they belong to a thriving culture they’re proud of.
  • Optimally, a leader’s cultural umbrella keeps people united beneath common cultural beliefs, ground-rules, rituals and values that guide how they behave and perform.
  • A cultural umbrella with that safe space beneath it, is a powerful symbol of what good leaders do. Without that kind of shielding and protection, cultures can stray off-course or become caustic, as values and behaviours collide.

A big factor in cultivating high-performing, energetic and happy cultures is what leaders model and the way they steer beliefs and guide behaviour. That’s what being under the cultural umbrella is about.

2. What Colour is your Umbrella?

Let’s refine this metaphor a little more. Not all leaders hoist up the same colour umbrella. In fact, different coloured umbrellas reflect different approaches to leading culture and different types of culture leaders ultimately cultivate.

Our Cultural Leadership Umbrella Quiz gives you an idea of the kind of cultural shelter you afford to those under your umbrella, based on 4 different coloured umbrellas.

♦  White umbrella leaders consistently model constructive beliefs and behaviours well-aligned to strategic purpose, positive values, pro-active approaches and productive performance.

If your cultural leadership umbrella is white you’re managing to maintain a positive and healthy culture that’s in good shape to adapt, prosper and succeed.

♦  Blue umbrella leaders mostly model beliefs and behaviours largely aligned to positive purpose, strategy and values. Yet there may be hints of incoherencies and inconsistencies that disrupt productive performance now and then.

If your cultural leadership umbrella is blue, you’re maintaining a culture that’s in generally good shape to succeed but there’s a few things to be vigilant about.

♦  Red umbrella leaders are erratic modellers with mixed beliefs and patchy behaviours – some constructive, others not so much. And they’re weakly coupled to values, strategy and purpose that may be unclear, incoherent or questionable.

If your cultural leadership umbrella is red, you most likely model (or ignore) a few disturbing things that detract from productivity and cultural health.

♦ Black umbrella leaders model mainly dysfunctional behaviours and beliefs leading to or perpetuating toxic cultures with unclear, misaligned strategy, purpose and values that are dubious and destructive.

If your cultural leadership umbrella is black, it means you model, uphold or ignore counter-productive and disruptive attributes that can jeopardise the culture, it’s health and lead to organisational failings.

3. Kinds of Cultural Leadership

Let’s refine this metaphor a little more. Not all leaders hoist up the same colour umbrella. In fact, different coloured umbrellas reflect different approaches to leading culture and different types of culture leaders ultimately cultivate.

Our Cultural Umbrella Survey gives you an idea of the kind of cultural shelter you afford to those under your umbrella, based on 4 different coloured umbrellas.

As you probably gathered, each umbrella colour incorporates and correlates to four factors that determine the kind of culture you curate, model, reinforce and preserve, in terms of your leadership actions. These measurement factors are:

1. Beliefs and Behaviours: Some beliefs and behaviours help us move forward. They’re constructive and progressive. Others can be obstructive and hold a culture back. They’re regressive.

  • Beliefs are the deepest layer at the core of any culture. They’re what we hold to be true. But they can be hard to detect because they’re deep-seated, often unconscious mindsets that dictate the way we think, feel and act.
  • Behaviours are the way we actually act. You can see them happening. Some ways we act help create constructive cultures. Other ways we act contribute to cultures that are corrosive or disconnected.

Core beliefs drive behaviours and leaders play a crucial role in modelling the kind of beliefs and behaviours people pick up, adopt and preserve.

2. Visions, Values and Purpose: In constructive cultures, leaders clearly communicate and unite people behind common purpose, visions, values, directions and goals that most tend to embrace and commit to. How in-tune people are with what the organisation stands for relates to cultural identity.

  • Purpose and Visions: In constructive cultures, purpose, vision and direction are understood, subscribed to and shared by almost everyone. We all know what we stand for, what the direction is, and we’re going the same way. In dislocated cultures, differences in these areas divide us. We feel lost. We’re directionless, or feel we’re being pulled in too many directions.
  • Values and Visions should go together. They’re an important layer in any culture. They tell us what we hold dear or not. They’re what we use to judge whether something is good or bad, right, wrong, important or unimportant, and they influence and guide behaviour. Values should support purpose and vision (what we’re here for) and match up with beliefs, actions and behaviours.

Good leaders embody constructive cultural values and help others embrace them too. They promote shared vision, unite people behind it and ensure behaviours stay in step.

3. Leader Modelling. What leaders model is a fundamental influencer of culture. Good leaders are mindful to set daily examples for others to watch and follow, as well as monitor and re-inforce culturally fitting practices, standards and behaviours.

Our Cultural Leadership Umbrella Survey helps you to self-assess:

  • How clear, conscious and consistent you are in modelling messages, beliefs, behaviours and actions that mirror cultural values you are trying to foster or forego.
  • How frequently you have open and frank conversations about culture that keep it upper-most in peoples’ minds and how safe people feel to speak up under your umbrella.
  • How intentional your words and actions are. Staff notice if what you say and do are a match or mismatch with professed cultural values and behaviour. With words, and more critically, actions, leaders constantly send a stream of messages about what’s expected, permitted, promoted – and behaviours you ignore that can be taken as ones you accept.

“Leadership is caught not taught. Teams absorb more from what they actually see you do rather than what you say you do.”

4. Aligning strategy to visions, values and culture. It’s critical to get this fit right. How well or ill-fitting this is can either enable or disable strategy. Real culture leaders (unlike the CEO in my story) need to constantly ask themselves:

  • How focused and intent am I on aligning culture and behaviour with purpose, values, and strategy?
  • How committed and clear am I on how I go about it and why it matters?
  • To what degree am I equally concerned with strategy and culture?

Do you model white umbrella culture to steer your workplace? What messages do you convey in what you say? Are they indicative of blue or black umbrella culture? Do you confront dysfunctional behaviour or mindsets or tread red-umbrella territory too often?

These are just some of the questions we explore in our 2-day Leading Culture Clinics, also available as a 1-day fast-track Clinic or a series of Live-Online Sessions. See our course calendar for latest dates. Start creating the kind of culture you want today.

Cheers… Bill Cropper
Director – The Change Forum

Bill Cropper is founding director of The Change Forum. For more than 25 years, he’s helped senior executives, leaders, project groups and teams in all sorts of work settings, revitalise and renovate their cultures. Why not start a conversation with me about cultural leadership coaching or your cultural revitalisation efforts and what kind of oucomes and support you need.

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