Culture and Leadership: They’re Simply Two Sides of the Same Coin

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The good news is that culture has caught on as a concept. but leading culture expert Edgar Schein, says it’s just as a “word” and people need to be aware that 90 percent of their behavior is driven by cultural rules and not personality.

Schein, a best-selling author and Professor Emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, shared this and other key insights about culture and leadership in the second part of a recent interview with

He continues to be troubled by the misuse of the word “culture” and the “failure of people to see that culture is not this surface phenomenon, but it is our very core, that we live in culture, we display a culture, and we are always driven by the culture.”

Leaders create culture

Schein believes that:

Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin. When organizations start or when groups start there is always a leader who has a preferred way of doing things, and those preferences by definition are going to be imposed on the group members. If you don’t like the way I run this group, I’ll replace you. The leader’s values and preferences are the first ways that a group or organization does things and if that works it becomes eventually the culture of that group. So in a very real sense, founders and leaders create culture.”

In an established organization, “the way in which they’ve always done things limits what a leader can do, even what defines a leader in that organization.” A leader can’t just walk in and do things their way,” he said. “The system will not let you.”

Schein pointed out that,

“Once IBM is IBM, once GE is GE, only certain kinds of leaders will be tolerated. When Carly Fiorina came to Hewlett-Packard, she immediately raised hackles all over the place because she was too flamboyant, she wanted to do expensive stuff, so that limited the amount that she could do as a leader. So you can see that culture constrains leadership in a mature company just as leaders create culture in a young company.”

Leaders should use humble inquiry

Schein believes leaders should not focus on changing culture but on solving business problems and he outlined this and other insights in part one of his interview.

His most recent book, Humble Inquiry – The Gentle Art of Asking and Not Telling, outlines an approach leaders should utilize to build trust and surface real issues and potential solutions to those business problems.

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He explained it this way:

Humble inquiry is creating a climate in which you display, through your asking genuine questions, an interest in the other person such that they will want to tell you the truth about what really is going on. Now why is that important? I think the major pathology in all organizations that I’ve seen is that upward communication is very faulty.

Subordinates know lots of things that would make the place work better or safer that they for various reasons withhold. If you survey them and ask ‘why aren’t you telling your boss what is really going on, they’ll say 1) he shoots the messengers, 2) I used to tell him but he never really took any interest in it, or 3) I tell him but they never fix anything so I no longer have any incentive to tell.’

Now, if I’m right and that is the problem, the only way to cure that is for the boss to change his behavior, to go to that subordinate and engage in humble inquiry. Say to that subordinate, ‘I’m really interested in what you see in how we can be safer and better and what not, and I’m listening.’ If the boss doesn’t do that, we are going to continue to have accidents and low quality products because the information isn’t surfacing.”

We all have experience with the Humble Inquiry

All of us know how to be humbly inquiring. We do it with our friends, relatives, children and parents, so it’s not a skill we don’t have. (The issue is) “when we take it to the work place, for some reason we think we should now get stiff and formal.

The switch I have to learn to make, if I’m an old leader and I’m dissatisfied and want to change this, is I have to wake up to the fact that these subordinates are people and I have to get interested in them. If I get interested in them and curious, the behavior will become natural. It is not a new skill, it is applying an old skill in a new setting and recognizing its relevance.”

Leaders should “orchestrate”

Edgar Schein had some interesting insights into why more leaders don’t apply humble inquiry.

The larger culture of management says: once you’re a manager, now you have the right to tell other people what to do which is really how a lot of young managers behave. They think, ‘OK, now I’m the boss, so I get to tell.’ This culture of ‘tell’ is very congruent with Western capitalist culture because our whole foundation is built on the higher you go, the more you know and the more you can tell people what to do.

Work now is a highly distributed process where lots of things have to play together for the product to go out the door and so it’s no longer a case of where the manager can tell what to do. The manager now has to orchestrate, create relationships and make sure everything works together.

I don’t think very many managers have figured that out. They still think they’re the boss rather than the orchestrator.”

Do you agree with the need for leaders to focus on humble inquiry and being an “orchestrator”?

This post originally appeared on with a full interview video and transcript.

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting. Contact him at


5 Comments on “Culture and Leadership: They’re Simply Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. Tim,
    Great to see an interview with Schein, one of the OD greats in my mind. I often incorporate his views on culture when doing my work. His Process Consultation method is also of great value. Per the interview, I agree with the statement “…I don’t think very many managers have figured that out. They still think they’re the boss rather than the orchestrator.” And as Schein would say this is where they need to…access their ignorance… and be open to a both/and approach.

  2. Scott,
    Thank you for the feedback. It was a great experience and I was pleased to see how focused he is on solving problems and engaging people the right way to determine solutions. I definitely like your / his “access your ignorance” point.

  3. “Orchestrate” doesn’t do it for me. Webster: “To arrange or combine so as to achieve a desired or maximum effect.” Sounds like a manager (with the potential non-inclusive leadership problems) to me. “Inquiry” for sure. Inquiry moves us toward the basis of leadership, that is, a meeting of the minds with followers. No agreement, no leadership.

  4. Thanks Roger – I have to agree with you that Orchestrate may not be strong enough on its own and achieving the maximum effect sure sounds good to me. Inquiry can move us toward agreement and ownership as leaders listen, orchestrate and manage to act on what they hear.

  5. Great article! Two of the greatest insights here are the concept of humble inquiry and getting interested in employees as people. Employees have a wealth of knowledge and ideas that can bring about improvement. If only we will acknowledge that and build a relationship with them first…they will begin talking.

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