Do we need to change our leaders to change our culture?

During a group chat on Slack this week a remark was made about Borland Software Corporation in Austin, TX. In 2006 they constructed a new building for teams that were willing to practice agile; the only way to work in that building was to be willing to work in an agile environment.  I sat back and considered how brilliant that is. By opening up the doors to only those who wish to work a certain way you organically grow the culture you’re looking for. The painful change and “transformation” process is almost completely avoided.


Later on I came across an article discussing the current state of the Democratic National Party in the United States. The outlook was under the lens of yet another election that the Democratic candidate was “supposed to” win but didn’t. The entire crux of the article was that the Democrats lost because their candidate was inextricably linked to the elder statesmen of the party. These long-time politicians are allergic to modernization or change, and want to maintain the status quo as it is to their benefit. The article surmised that for the party to change it needs to leave it’s older, intractable leaders behind.

Riding the train this morning both these ideas were swirling around in my head. Serendipitously they smashed together and the result is what ended up being the title and thesis of this blog post…


What if to change our culture we need to jettison the “leaders” that are against this change?


I then  started thinking about the transformations I had been a part of to see if this theory holds true:

  • Company A made a half-hearted attempt at “going agile”.  Teams were encouraged to find their own way. Unfortunately there was little in regards to executive support (save for the technology lead who suggested it).  The business units had no interest in upsetting the apple cart and were unengaged.  The initiative fizzled out before it even got a chance to take seed.
  • Company B had agile inflicted on it by the flavor-of-the-month CIO. It was painful and tumultuous for every single person involved and yet we came through the other side with a solid substrate in which to build our organizational transformation. Many in the leadership realm quickly came around to this new way of working and by embracing it they delivered not only positive change but also impressive results. Those leaders that were against/not interested in the change ended up leaving the organization.
  • Company C had pockets of people who are truly interested in the change(which was mirrored at some of the higher levels of the technology totem pole).  In the middle leaders abounded who did not embrace the idea.  They considered agile a “fad” that they would “worry about when the deadline gets closer.”  One executive remarked:  “Agile is just an excuse to not do planning.”  The jury is still out on whether this transformation is successful or not.


So what if we had leaders that were gung-ho and invested in this change to a better way of working?  At this point I’m purely speculating, but companies A and C would’ve been super successful.  (I consider company B successful so I will not speculate).

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Little (author of Lean Change Management) on our podcast.  My co-host Ryan Lockard asked Jason a question about “change resistors.” Jason’s response was something like “why waste so much effort trying to change someone’s mind who’s not interested? Use that effort to help the people who ARE embracing the change and you’ll bear better results.”

I think all these themes are related. In order for an organization to transmogrify into an agile business they need to identify and remove the leaders in said organization that are not willing to embrace the change.  It will be better for all parties involved!


Would your transformation have been more successful if your organization got rid of the leadership impediments?  Feel free to share your stories on the coalition!