How to be a Leader in a Crappy Culture

It’s easy to be a great leader in a company that values leadership, develops leaders, and is full of role model leaders to earn from.

You’ve seen the lists:

2011 Top Companies for Leaders

The Top 20 Best Companies for Leaders

40 Best Companies for Leaders 2012

25 Top Companies for Leaders

These companies, while not perfect, tend to have great hiring and promotional practices, and invest in succession planning and leadership development. If you somehow slipped through the dragnet and got hired or promoted as a lousy manager, the cultural antibodies would eventually find and dispose of you.

However….what about the rest of us? What about those aspiring wannbe leaders that happen to work at one of the other organizations that don’t make the leadership honor role? Is it impossible to develop into a great leader, and to BE a leader, in a bad company with a crappy culture?

I’d say difficult, yes, but impossible, absolutely not!

I’ve been conducting and managing leadership training programs for over 20 years. In classes where participants are all from the same organizations, it’s inevitable at some point in the program the group gets into a pity party about how their managers, division, or company doesn’t model or support what they are learning.

When I would track the performance of participants after the program, there’s always a handful that somehow manage to implement the new behaviors or skills and achieve positive results, despite having to overcome all of the exact same barriers as the rest of their peers.

Somehow, these outliers are able to establish their own little bubbles of leadership excellence within a culture that doesn’t value and support great leadership.

When I ask these outliers how they manage to do it, their answers are always consistent.

So – other than updating your LinkedIn profile and finding a new company, here are a few things a manager can do to be a leader in a company with a crappy culture:

1. Clarify your non-negotiable leadership principles and stick with them no matter what.
In a tough economy, more and more employees find themselves dug into a position or company that they just can’t afford to leave (at least for now). If you’re in a situation like this, you have to ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice when it comes to your leadership principles and values? If you’re not sure, chances are, like a frog in a pot of boiling water, at some point, you’ll end up violating every one of them until you wake up one day, look in the mirror, and not recognize yourself.

If you haven’t already, take the time to develop your own list of leadership principles, values, or rules. Then, given your current culture, ask yourself “which ones am I willing to be fired over?”

It’s not as scary or risky as it sounds. Everybody has a line they won’t cross – yours just happens to be your leadership principles.

2. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
When it comes to developing and encouraging leadership, actions speak louder than words. Be a safe haven for other aspiring leaders to come out of the closet. In a crappy leadership culture, role model leaders are few and far between. If you’re being a leader, people will be lining up at your door looking for advice, coaching, and mentoring.

3. Keep a positive attitude.
In a crappy work environment, complaining becomes the norm because there’s so much to complain about. Without going overboard and coming across as out-of-touch or not caring, try to avoid the sarcasm, cynicism, finger pointing, and complaining. They’re all toxic behaviors that will suck the life out of yourself and those around you.

4. Protect your employees.
In a crappy culture, bullies think it’s OK to disrespect and abuse people. After all, that’s the way they were treated. Don’t let it happen to your employees. Let the bullies know that your employees are off limits, and if you need to, pick the biggest bully and give them a bloody nose. Metaphorically, of course. (-:

5. Be an advocate for your peers.
Leadership isn’t just about standing up for your own employees – it’s about standing up for your peers as well. In an environment where people are used to being routinely stabbed in the back, having someone stand up for them will be like a breadth of fresh air. Once they realize you’re sincere and have no political agenda, you’ll begin to establish productive relationships and plant the seeds for their own development as leaders.

6. Establish and maintain your own standards of performance and behavior.
Sure, the company may have set the bar so low that any warm body can meet expectations. High performers can give up and poor performers can settle in. That doesn’t mean your standards can’t be higher – much higher. Assess your team using a performance and potential grid and put a plan in place to develop those with potential and gradually weed out the bad apples.

7. Do what’s doable and within your control.
Regardless of company culture, a manager still can control how often and well he/she:

– listens

– shows respect

– praises

– involves others

– celebrates success

– shows appreciation

– develops others

None of these require approval from top management or HR and don’t cost a dime.

Still think it can’t be done? Stay tuned for this week’s guest post, from David Marquet, who captained a Navy submarine crew and took them from “worst to first”.