If Culture Eats Strategy, What Eats Culture?

Everyone knows the line: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  It’s usually attributed to Peter Drucker, although for the life of me I can’t find any evidence he said it.  But Drucker aside, the meaning is what matters. Without the right culture, even magnificent strategies fail.

But culture is not the apex predator of strategy. Something else can slow or kneecap strategy altogether. That is leaders. Leaders are the key influencer of culture.

Not Toxic

When we think of leaders and culture we tend to think in extremes. Great leaders foster great culture. Toxic leaders create poisonous cultures. But a passionate, charismatic, and kind leader can still weaken the culture’s ability to fulfill strategy. These are not toxic leaders. They are anti-strategic leaders.

The behavior that leaders exhibit becomes a model for others in the organization. That doesn’t mean that people necessarily imitate that behavior. Instead, team members observe what their CEOs do and use it to craft a mental model of the organization and how one should operate within it.

A great leader models respect, and people internalize that as a norm. A toxic leader pits employees against each other and people internalize that dog-eat-dog survivalism. The culture will eventually reflect that.


The less obvious case is the leader who is not toxic to her people –but is toxic to its focus and strategic-ness. An anti-strategic leader in an otherwise healthy culture will model behavior that eventually makes it impossible to have or execute a cohesive strategy. He will refuse to select between potential priorities, and label everything urgent. Or he will fail to acknowledge a failed initiative and kill it. So, the project languishes.

I see LOTS of anti-strategic leaders—and many of them are founders of high-growth start-ups.

Unlike leaders of legacy companies who likely climbed a corporate ladder within that or similar organization, start-up founders often emerge from another part of the startup ecosystem: Venture capital, investment banking, or some part of the technology world. Maybe he’s an engineer, a scientist, product manager, or finance savant.

The upshot is that, like all of us, most founders see things through the prism of their own expertise. Plus, they are possessed by the thing that made them launch a start-up: The invention. The vision. The opportunity. The potential exit. They focus on what interests them and not on how their leadership affects the organization.

The Cult(ure) of Personality

I have lots of anecdotal evidence to back up this generalization. But it turns out that the research confirms my observation. Founders, on average, do not make the best leaders. And it largely comes down to personality traits. And organizations internalize their leaders’ best and worst traits.

Most of us can’t see the relationship between our behavior and the things that bother us. That’s true of leaders too. They can’t see how they are causing their biggest sources of consternation.

One of my client companies has a CEO who regularly changes her mind about what is most important. Every opportunity must be pursued, so she leads people into battle on ever more fronts. Today it is adoption; tomorrow a new vertical; next week an acquisition.

Despite all the new initiatives, no project is ever retired. The list of “critical priorities” grows. Urgency and incompletion are ubiquitous.

From the CEO’s standpoint, her people don’t deliver. From their standpoint they never get a chance to complete anything.

The culture reflects this. While everyone is massively passionate and committed they feel like hostages in a cult. Burnout is endemic and turnover high. No one really succeeds and no strategy sticks.

  • The organization has a strategy problem.
  • The strategy has a culture problem.
  • And the culture’s problem is the CEO.

No matter how much HR does to retain people, build cohesion, and raise morale – the CEO’s strategic impulsiveness cannibalizes their progress.

Follow The Complaint Trail

For anti-strategic leaders, it looks like their people are failing at executing the strategy. But the leader is the primary cause of that failure.

If you are a leader, and notice you have a recurring complaint about either people or results, consider looking in the mirror.

Don’t feel guilty. Guilt is ineffectual. But curiosity is impactful.

When we develop a deep curiosity to find the ways that we, ourselves, are creating the issues that dog us, we find them. That’s dangerous to the ego –but potentially a breakthrough for the organization and its strategy.

Do The Research

If you are up for such an inquiry, here are some ideas:

  • Have HR do anonymous surveys about your leadership.
  • Record exit interviews.
  • Hold employee and stakeholder focus groups.
  • Solicit feedback from your direct reports (after delivering a blanket amnesty for anything they tell you).

Be relentless.

You need enough data to compensate for the inevitable dishonesty.

If you’re genuinely curious, you’ll get the answers.

Then what?

The next step is simple but not easy.

Give It Up

Ask yourself, what belief, way of being or behavior would I have to give up for this culture to be strategy-focused?

It will be something precious and familiar to you.

  • Are you willing to give up chasing every opportunity?
  • Are you willing to give up sending emails late at night?
  • Will you give up hogging the mic in meetings?
  • Can you give up irresponsibly wielding your power?
  • Are you willing to make strategic choices that include saying no to possible initiatives?


The thing you choose to give up will probably be something so automatic that it barely seems like a choice.  And likely, it is something you use to comfort yourself (albeit, unconsciously).

One of my clients is giving up trying to look smart. Despite being brilliant, he has lots of behaviors that are designed to ensure you know that! He is giving up long presentations, arguing with input that he requested, and decks with over 5 slides (his usually have 40). This will be brutal. His ego and his need for admiration will nag at him. But his will team gain space to focus on the actual strategy without being distracted and overshadowed by a show-off.

He sees that as a great trade-off. And he’s right.

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