‘Culture is a slow growing tree. In the beginning it needs protection. But after a couple of decades the culture will be stronger than you are. You need to work with it, not against it. Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grown another one’.
This might be less a blog than an extension of someone else’s metaphor; but a metaphor that creates for me the most vivid image.
Organisational culture is made of up many things. It includes our beliefs, values, behaviour, norms. The history, the narrative, the past and the present. How we do things around here. That which is shared. The way we collectively are.
Just like a tree, culture is strong, deep rooted, slow growing, but always changing. Trees bend, shed leaves, can be healthy or diseased. They may thrive, but even the strongest can be felled by the wind. Or someone can just take an axe to it and chop it down.
Whatever the organisation, most trees will outlast the individual leader.
We talk of the wisdom of the crowd. For me, the culture is the crowd, and the crowd is the culture. Culture is owned and created by everyone in the organisation: each individual leaf on the tree makes up the whole; who the organisation really is.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to tend our culture tree. Fail to look after it, fail to act, and the damage will be long lasting. We must never forget it isn’t about us, the short term decision, the immediate operational priority. Employees have long memories. They will not forget is you cut down your tree, ignore your espoused values, ignore who you say you are. In the challenging business environments that many of us face every day, we may forget that as leaders at the top of own trees we have the power to influence all the way down, through, around. Trees cast long shadows.
Look after your culture tree. Do not water it with fears, distrust, disconnection, poor communication, poor leadership, lest it bear a toxic fruit.
From A Poison Tree by William Blake
And I watered it with fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles
And it grew by day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.