I came across a very interesting historical story, one that I have never read before. It dealt with the influence on culture that a foreign soldier had on the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. His influence helped George Washington turn around a failing effort to become the premier example of freedom in the world.
I cannot do justice to the story told by Ed Ruggero of Academy Leadership. I will be brief in my description and refer you to here to read the entire story, it is worth the brief time it will take you. The story relates the experience of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm de Steuben, a Prussian army officer, who decided to join the American freedom fighters. If you know anything about the Prussians, they are famous for order and discipline. Steuben found a ragtag collection of individuals in deplorable condition camped out at Valley Forge. Ill fed, ill clothed and ill armed they could hardly be called an army. Washington despaired that he would have to dissolve the army and forfeit the cause.
Steuben, volunteered to help. He talked to the officers and men (through an interpreter because he spoke no English). He assessed their capabilities and reported to Washington their sorry state. But, he also offered a solution. He was going to teach them discipline and coordinated effort by teaching them to march as an army. He started with a small group. He spent time learning the English necessary to shout the commands.
He changed the culture
The thought in mind was by instilling the discipline to march and drill it would spill over in other areas. He influenced officers to pay better attention to their men. We all know the story of Valley Forge, well most of us do anyway, and we have arrived at where we are today as a result of the work Steuben did on the culture of the Continental Army.
Ruggero has a great quote in his article. He said:
“Culture” is one of those words that pop up in nearly every discussion of organizational performance. Culture is the sum total of everything we learn, from all sources, that tells us how we’re supposed to act.
He followed that with a great lesson:
Among the influencers of culture are behaviors that become accepted—or just ignored—over time, things that we reward, successes we celebrate, and norms among peer groups. Leaders can influence some of these aspects of organizational life, and clever leaders look for opportunities to shape the culture, using formal tools such as the organization’s values, purpose and mission; and less formal but equally important tools such as the stories they share and the things we reward.
The lesson in culture
The lesson in this is that leaders do influence culture. They can do that by rewarding, celebrating or accepting behaviors. This is how you have a positive influence on culture. You can also influence culture in a negative way. You either reward poor behavior or you ignore good behavior.
If you have a poor culture in your organization, look in the mirror.
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