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Leadership Reality

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This quote has been floating around the business world for a while. It’s often credited to Peter Drucker, but the jury’s still out on who really said it first. 

Mark Fields—former president and CEO of Ford—summed it up nicely:

“You can have the best plan in the world, and if the culture isn’t going to let it happen, it’s going to die on the vine.” 

What Drucker/Fields/Whoever is saying is spot-on. You can go ahead and pay a consultant big money to draft the most incredible strategic plan anyone has ever seen. But, if you don’t have the culture to support it, that plan will be dead on arrival.

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Have We Heard Something Like That Before?

To my ears, this sounds like a slight variation on a theme we find in Jesus’ ministry.

Once, Jesus ripped into a group of them as a brood of self-righteous vipers (Matt 12:34). 

Why? They’d used their religious words and deeds as a pretense for showing off how “good” they were.

Jesus’ critique was as incisive as it was biting. You guys are like a bad tree, he accused, and everybody knows bad trees can’t produce good fruit (Matt 12:33). If you were good on the inside, then you’d actually have something good to contribute. 

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day put a premium on their strategy of external religious works. After all, they’d had a few hundred years to dial it in. But, Jesus flipped that script, telling them what truly mattered was the internal culture of their hearts. 

In other words, strategy tried to eat culture, but all it got was a bowl of rotten fruit.

Bringing it Back

In case you haven’t been following the story, Uber had a nightmare of a year in 2017. 

From covered-up cybersecurity breaches to government fines to intellectual property lawsuits, this once-loved disruptor has spent the past year fighting for its life.

Early in 2017, we caught a hint of the deeper dysfunction beneath Uber’s rocky road when a pair of tell-all articles appeared online. Written by former employees, they disclosed a toxic culture of sexual harassment, dishonesty, and abysmal leadership. 

There’s a lot we can say about Uber, but I don’t want to kick a company when its down. Let this serve as a clear lesson; Uber’s original leadership team created a culture that put profits before people, dominance before dignity, and innovation before integrity.

And, in the end, they reaped a harvest of bad fruit in the form of hundreds of thousands of account deletions and $4.5 billion lost in 2017 alone.

The Flip Side

There’s a positive side to this. For every Uber, you’ve got a Netflix, who’s radical efforts to create a culture around freedom and responsibility have turned it into one of the most incredible places to work in America.

 In 2016, Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord, worked with co-founder Reed Hastings, to envision a workforce made up entirely of courageous, self-sufficient adults. Rather than fall back on a formal personnel strategy, they meticulously constructed a culture that both attracted and nurtured the precise type of person they wanted working at Netflix.

What issued from that culture-first attitude was an entertainment juggernaut. Today, Netflix employs over 5,000 employees. Their subscription numbers are well above 100 million, and their revenue topped $11.69 billion in 2017. 


William Vanderbloemen is an entrepreneur, pastor, author, and friend. His company, Vanderbloemen Search Group, has won a slew awards from Entrepeneur.com and Houston Magazine for Top Company Culture and Best Place to Work.  

In his book, “Culture Wins,” William reflects on what it took for his group to create such an incredible workplace and what culture means for the future of corporate America. 

One of his concluding reflections sums up the power of what we’ve been looking at:

“According to a Gallup study, we’re living in a country where two-thirds of Americans hate their jobs. What would happen if, in the future, two-thirds of Americans loved their jobs? What if people talked about their former employers as good people at great companies? What would happen if instead of having to bribe people to work for you, they were lining up outside your door saying, ‘Can I work for you?’ That’s when you’ll know you’re focusing on culture.”  

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, not because strategy doesn’t matter, but because culture drives everything you do. Either neglect your culture or develop a toxic one, a la Uber, and your organization will end up bearing nothing but a whole lot of rotten fruit. 

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