Before attacking organizational culture, read this.

I don’t know the identity of the “wise ones” who are preaching the gospel of slash and burn leadership. But should I bump into one of them, I fear my commitment to civil discourse will be at risk.

You know who I mean — the management gurus who label organizational culture as the enemy of visionary leadership. Or in church circles, the folks who counsel clergy to decimate their congregations in the name of church growth.

Too many ministry organizations are torn apart by careless application of wrong-headed advice about change. As the authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article warn: “You can’t trade your company’s culture in as it were a used car. For all its benefits and blemishes, it’s a legacy that remains uniquely yours.”

I encourage you to download the HBR piece ASAP and pass it along to your LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook lists. (I’d like to make the article required reading for every new leader – beginning with those with whom I work.) Although written for a business audience, applications to the nonprofit sector are easy to spot.

To pique your interest, here’s the short version of the authors’ five principles for change that sticks, along with commentary by me.


  1. Match strategy and culture. The best laid plans of mice and men, if at odds with your organization’s culture, are almost surely doomed for failure. As the HBR article reminds, “culture trumps strategy every time.”
  2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behavior. Wholesale change is tough for folks to swallow. It’s almost always better to dish out change in small bites before serving up the whole enchilada.
  3. Honor the strengths of your existing culture. My grandma taught me that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It’s the rare organization that doesn’t have something good going for it. Sticky change starts there.
  4. Integrate formal and informal interventions. Bringing about change is both an art and a science. Reason is great, but so are appeals to shared passions and beliefs.
  5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution. Every action has a corresponding and sometimes not so happy reaction. Better to step back and reassess strategies than to push on stubbornly in a flawed direction.

Be one of the truly wise one by reading, heeding, and leading with these five principles for cultural change that sticks. The organization you serve will be blessed for it.


  1. Integrating formal and informal interventions is crucial. Also important is to get them in the right order as much as possible. If informal conversation happen prior to the formal discussion, they are informative and help to create supportive alignment for what comes later. If they are in reverse, the the informal conversations become a shouting down of protest at worst, and an effort to persuade, push and cajole at best.

  2. Great point, Mark. I’m sitting in the midst of one of those shouting matches right now and it’s not much fun. If only the leadership team had been more sensitive to and appreciative of organizational culture.

  3. Greg Starr says:

    Hi Rebekah,
    A pastor-friend sent me to read this blog as I prepare to take on a senior pastor role in September. Thanks for your insight. This is the kind of thing I need right now. I signed up for an e-mail subscription to the blog.

  4. I’m delighted that you found this article about change helpful, Greg. And even more delighted that you’ve subscribed to Generous Matters. I look forward to your future feedback.

    As I mentioned, I would make the HBR article required reading for all new leaders — including pastors. A word of unsolicited advice as you assume your new ministry role: If the church board hasn’t already done so, ask that they recruit a transition team of 3 or 4 wise men and women to walk alongside you during your first year at the church. It’s best if these folks are separate from the board. Their role is to act as a sounding board and early-alert warning system. I wish the church board where I worship would have done this. It could have saved the congregation and our pastor a lot of pain.

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