Recently, I was working with a team of managers on their organization’s leadership culture when one of the participants received an urgent call from his manager, who told him to fly back to corporate headquarters right away.

There had to be an emergency meeting about an issue at one of the company’s plants that was severely affecting their product’s quality. The participant who received this call was a key member of the company and the “go-to” guy in times of crisis.

His manager hadn’t thought twice about calling him out of our training so that he could fix whatever problem their reactive culture had created.

This participant, however, did think twice about it. “I think it’s important for me to stay here and finish the training” he boldly told his boss. “There are other people there who can handle the problem and I assure you that I’ll follow up with all of them as soon as I’m done here.”

The Big Picture

His manager might have been a little put off by this suggestion, but I was certainly proud of this leader’s commitment to his development. He instinctively saw the big picture and acted on it instead of reacting to a crisis and running off frantically to be the expert that could save the day.

In the end, his manager consulted with the CEO and called back with the decision: “The CEO said he wants you to stay in the training,” he reported. “There’s nothing more important that you could be doing right now than learning about how to implement leadership principles into your division. A member of your team will address the quality issues.”

Wow! How refreshing to be working with an organization that is getting ahead of the curve by building a sustainable organizational structure and culture.

The Three Levels of Leadership Culture

I’ve found there are three distinct levels of culture in any given workplace. As a leader, which one are you promoting?

Scrambling Leadership Culture

In this culture, people are full of anxiety and rushing around to get things done. It’s like they have their hair on fire. All members —employees, supervisors, managers, VPs, CEOs—feel like they can never get ahead of the daily demands. Meeting day-to-day priorities is a struggle. There is a failure to grow and plan the future because all the energy is spent on taking care of today—and, often, yesterday as well.

A scrambling culture consumes a lot of energy from the company and its employees, who are constantly engaged in fighting fires and scurrying to get things done. This energy could be better spent on improving working conditions, on striving toward company core values, on meeting and exceeding expectations.

Instead, it is squandered on problems and misunderstandings that hold the company back.

Attempts to break out of this scrambling cycle are short term. Rather than coming up with solutions that can effect real change and improve the way things are done, the managers in this culture only take time for fast fixes, which, in the end, create more of the same—more scrambling.

Old School Leadership Culture

This culture is based on good, old-fashioned fear of that one person who has the power to make you or break you work-wise: the boss. The reason why he or she is feared?

Because the old school culture believes that people need to be managed—not like employees, but like children who need to be watched and blamed when they have made a mistake.

Managers and employees have little trust in each other.

Despite this type of management, an old school leadership culture is not entirely unsuccessful.

It does have its hard-won achievements, but often finds itself taking two steps back for every one pace it moves forward. Perhaps this is because there is little passion for the work, and little loyalty to it as well.

The turnover rate in an old school culture is generally high—as is the cost of grievances and related litigation, both of which draw resources away from the areas that really need them.

Ahead of the Curve Leadership Culture

The leaders in this culture believe that people come first, and that is what keeps them ahead, plain and simple. They also believe in high standards and refuse to bow to the mediocrity that other cultures offer; they know that “there’s never enough time” and “that’s not in the budget” are just excuses that other managers use to hold themselves back.

In a culture that is ahead of the curve, a team member’s expertise is valued and encouraged. Ideas are heard and considered, no matter the person’s status or standing in the company. Leaders approach their employees with genuine concern and care, and that attitude permeates everything they do, as well as the culture itself.

There is nothing fake here, and it shows in the great returns and impressive success that those in such a culture enjoy.

Companies generally fall into one of these three categories but sometimes it is possible to fluctuate between the first two.

Scrambling and Old School cultures do have some overlapping features and companies can find themselves meandering between the two in any number of reactive ways.

The culture that is Ahead of the Curve, however, is in a class all by itself. There are no similarities here with the other two cultures. Those companies that are within this realm have made the leap and pulled out so far ahead that the other two cultures cannot even hope to catch them.

What Type of Leader Are You?

Whereas each workplace can fit into one of the three cultures as I describe above, so can each workplace’s managers or leaders. I have found in companies those who are in charge can usually be put into similar groupings.

The Scrambling Manager

Scrambling managers live moment to moment and often feel as though they are on the edge of disaster. They focus on activities—getting the boxes on the trucks, processing new orders—rather than on results such as achieving goals on time and on budget or planning the next strategy for increasing on-time delivery. In other words, Scrambling managers lack the “big picture” leadership skill.

Eventually, a scrambling manager will fall so far behind in managerial duties that he will be passed up for promotion or be allowed to stay. In frustration, he will leave the company and find a job someplace else (hopefully), where he can start the scrambling process all over again.

The Old School Manager

Old School managers focus on numbers, facts, and data and almost completely ignore those who work for them. The figures are more important, after all, because they think that numbers (spread sheet management) show what’s really going in the department.

Although an Old School manager can produce constant (yet not significant) results, there is no real strategic plan when she’s in charge.

She tends to follow flavor of the month trends as far as supervisory methods go; whatever new thing she hears about from other reactive managers or from the how-to books she’s fond of reading is what she goes with. When it doesn’t work, she simply drops it and moves on to something else.

The Ahead of the Curve Manager

Ahead of the Curve managers—the pre-emptive leaders—are often viewed as “lucky” by their colleagues because they seem to have everything in order, and their achievements are often impressive. But this is no result of luck; far from it, these leaders have worked hard for their success, leveraging their greatest assets—their people—to achieve the greatest returns.

The Ahead of the Curve manager sticks to what he or she knows will work because it has been tested and proven: balancing the company’s or division’s people and task priorities, building trust, and supporting his or her team members in everything they do.

Leadership isn’t easy. It takes discipline and time to invest in learning and developing your leadership skills to be the best.

Emphasizing this “people side” of the business, being affluent in the “task side” of the business, and acting on the future propels you to be an Ahead of the Curve leader. Enjoy the journey!

What Is Your Leadership Culture?

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.