Cultural leadership 

Expand your influence and impact

by Jens Højgaard, CEO, Maestro Business 

What does former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch have in common with IKEA founder,
Ingvar Kamprad and CEO superstar Jørgen Vig Knudstorp from LEGO? Obviously all are highly admired company leaders. All have managed to ensure and sustain growth in their respective companies over time. They have all crushed competition relentlessly and outperformed their peers. Still, while many other leaders can boast that they also did this, something puts Mr. Welch, Mr. Kamprad and Mr. Knudstorp in a very exclusive league of extraordinary leaders. A league most other leaders can only dream about.

Enter the world of cultural leadership.

Upon entering the job as LEGO Group CEO in 2004 – Mr. Knudstorp found LEGO in a life threatening situation and he did what most great CEO’s do: He started a turnaround process with outsourcing, right sizing, cost cutting, revenue stream improvement and complexity reduction. Despite his young age all traits of a skilled senior executive.

And then Mr. Knudstorp did what even skilled senior executives fail to do. He started to rigorously study LEGO culture. He became a student of the founding fathers of the original LEGO idea, the spirit and mind of the LEGO universe, of its fans, early products and dedicated lifetime employees. He wanted to understand the thinking processes of the generations of leaders and founders before him. Mr. Knudstorp made it his life purpose to become the curator of the cultural heritage of LEGO. And only by actually “becoming” LEGO could he avoid making the same disastrous mistakes that his predecessors had made; and find the way back to the very core of the business idea behind LEGO, which was long forgotten.

Ingvar Kamprad is the manifestation of IKEA culture and IKEA culture is Ingvar Kamprad. He designed the core idea, brought it to life and made it blossom. He walked the hallways, warehouses and stores relentlessly reminding IKEA employees - and customers - about the IKEA idea. And still at age 89 Mr. Kamprad spends the majority of his time, being the Cultural Evangelist in the 147,000 employee IKEA universe.

Jack Welch inherited the dusty old and somewhat dysfunctional GE anno 1892 culture from Thomas Edison in 1981. After first becoming “Old GE”, he slowly began the cultural transformation of the then 470,000 employee mega-company. By his retirement in 2001 Jack Welch was the culture of “New GE” and he left a company with exponential growth and an extraordinary legacy.

Luck, skill or inborn talent?

What makes Kamprad, Knudstorp and Welch truly unique in their ability to understand, direct and shape an entire organizational culture? Firstly they all have a reach that goes beyond most leaders. They have the ability to influence people across very large and diverse organizations. And while most leaders can only influence a group of people whom they know and can speak to directly; leaders mastering the art of cultural leadership can reach people they do not know personally or directly. They influence entire populations and, most important, they lead by their own example.

Very charismatic people tend to have an aura of magnetic energy around them. Mr. Knudstorp, Mr. Welch and Mr. Kamprad surely have this in excess. People are attracted to that energy and it will quite naturally make them susceptible to being influenced by the leader. Being able to influence an entire population is a core skill set of cultural leadership, however it is not sufficient. Take a stand-up comedian for instance. Through his fast paced humour and wit, he has the ability to instantly influence an entire population. But no one in the audience will go home and change their entire life after the show - the stand-up comedian lacks influence depth.

The masters of cultural leadership all have a very profound level of depth in their leadership. When they influence people, they have the ability to reach them at a level, where they begin redefining themselves. Jørgen - as all LEGO employees call Mr. Knudstorp - has the ability to turn 15,000 LEGO employees into lifelong fans of the LEGO Universe, and Mr. Welch could transform the collective mindset of his entire organization into “the highest performing team of business professionals in the world”. This has tremendous strength. While most leaders struggle to make organisational changes stick and execute strategies successfully. The true cultural leaders surpass them by affecting how thousands of people not only perform their job, but how they perceive themselves, even without the leader being present.

IKEA employees today do to other IKEA employees what Mr. Kamprad does. LEGO employees are constantly reminding each other to refer back to the simplicity and core genius of the LEGO brick. At GE the leadership pipeline, produces over 80% of the company’s leaders from internal talent. They grow up to do what Jack (and now Jeff Immelt) does, simply because it is how things are done – it is the culture!

Operating at this level of leadership reach and depth change become self-reinforcing. Ingrained in the company culture it becomes “the way we do things around here”.

The principles for extending your leadership reach and depth – practiced either deliberately or unconsciously - can change the direction and thinking patterns of a 450,000+ employee company. Most leaders are able to think out yet another strategic plan, but consistently pursuing and supporting it through cultural leadership becomes the difference between long-term success and failure. This is what separates most great leaders from the truly extraordinary leaders such as Welch, Kamprad and Knudstorp.