Leadership: Cult or culture?

Dr Tim Elmore

Dr. Tim Elmore is President of Growing Leaders, a non-profit leadership training and development organization. Tim is passionate about understanding the emerging generation and helping adults teach them how to become leaders in their schools, their communities and their careers. He teaches leadership courses and speaks at schools, universities, business, and athletic programs. Tim has trained thousands of leaders in partnership with nationally renowned schools and organizations like the San Francisco Giants, Stanford University, Virginia Tech, University of Alabama Athletics, Duke University,


University of Texas, and more. He has authored more than 30 books including: Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults, Generation iY: Secrets to Connecting With Today’s Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age, 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, and coming in summer 2017 Tim's latest book, Marching Off the Map, which will answer the question of how do we inspire students to learn in this brand new world

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Image credit: Hot Fuzz, Universal Pictures. Image credit: Hot Fuzz, Universal Pictures.

I don’t believe any educator or administrator wishes to start a cult, but far too often our leadership approach mirrors this kind of approach. Without knowing it, we can create a school or classroom that depends on us; one that revolves around our personality, our authority and depends on our presence to run smoothly.

It feels good to be needed. We unwittingly do this because it’s the model we’ve frequently seen in other contexts. Strong leadership means bigger than life charisma, intellect or talent. At least it seems that way.

Cult or Culture?

In retrospect, I have found the best educators lead in an entirely opposite fashion. They create a culture of leadership that impacts everyone on campus - including administrators, staff, teacher leaders, faculty, coordinators and students. In short, everyone becomes a school leader. Let me differentiate these terms:

A Cult: A group devoted and dependent on a central leader to instigate change.
A Culture: A community of shared values and qualities that foster change.

 Obviously, a culture can result in something much stronger than a cult. While cults usually possess a strong leader (however eccentric and dysfunctional he or she may be), a culture causes everyone to participate in the leadership atmosphere. Leadership becomes viral. It’s a way of life. It works like the tide in the ocean - when the tide goes"It’s been said a thousand times over the years: Culture eats strategy for breakfast." up, all the boats go up.

It’s been said a thousand times over the years: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. For that matter, I think it eats vision for lunch. While I believe in both strategy and vision, culture trumps them both in affecting behavior. There are thousands of K-12 schools that have their vision or strategy posted on the walls of their offices, yet when you observe the behavior of the staff or the students attending those schools, their behavior may not reflect those nicely framed statements at all. We all know that what’s hanging on the wall is not nearly as important as what’s happening down the hall. Behavior reflects culture, healthy or unhealthy.

Culture of Leadership

Great schools depend on great leadership. but great leaders understand that their most important job is to cultivate a culture of leadership, not just a program. It starts with one, but eventually should impact everyone. Programs come and go, but culture prevails for years, when it’s robust. The ultimate job of the leader is to create more leaders. They do this by creating a culture of leadership.

Last month, I spoke with a school superintendent who asked me what I thought was the most important step a principal or teacher can perform as they lead their school or classroom. My answer was the same: create the right culture. In a healthy culture, living things grow and thrive. So it is with school campuses:

  • It reduces administrator turnover.
  • It naturally fosters leader development.
  • It creates synergy and creativity in faculty.
  • It causes everyone to perform at higher levels.
  • It fosters a solution-based, resourceful atmosphere. 

Furthermore, when a staff member or teacher isn’t functioning well, culture becomes the report card. We must ask ourselves if we hired the wrong person, or if the culture isn’t strong enough yet. I have seen schools absolutely revolutionize the behavior and performance of previously average performing students and teachers. It was the culture that drew it out of them. Consider this metaphor:

How Does a Leader Accomplish This?

I’ve found a pattern in the ones that really “get it.” Below are the four elements the best schools utilize to create a culture of leadership.

1. Beliefs

The schools that are intentional about creating a healthy, leadership culture buy into a set of beliefs that set them apart from other campuses. The key ones are:

  • All teams have a culture, by default or design.
  • People are carriers of culture, good or bad.
  • Some team members are more contagious than others.
  • There are as many cultures as there are managers.
  • There is a difference between culture and climate.
  • The culture affects behavior more than anything else.
  • A leader’s job is to cultivate a healthy culture.
  • They do this through their habits and attitudes.

2. Farm System

The schools that are intentional about creating a healthy, leadership culture have all constructed the equivalent of a “farm system.” Just like in professional baseball, this system offers a place for emerging leaders to play at higher levels as they are able. A teacher who exhibits leadership qualities is asked to prepare for a role in leadership through a “teacher leader” process, involving several weeks of course work, shadowing, apprenticeships and leadership experiences. A vice-principal who wants to become a principal is provided with “game experience” leading in simulated roles where she can demonstrate the aptitude for such a responsibility. This development system is a graded process where roles become more challenging and increasingly similar to the one in which a candidate aspires to participate.

3. Elements

All comprehensive leader development systems involve four essential elements. I call this the Big IDEA for leader development since the four elements spell the word ‘IDEA’. Every training experience falls into one of these four:

I – Instruction. There is verbal training, summarizing the concepts to be learned.
D – Demonstration. There are examples to observe a leader model the skills.
E – Experience. There are opportunities for the candidate to actually practice them.
A – Assessment. There are evaluation periods and debriefing to assess progress.

4. Qualities

Finally, all schools that are intentional about leader development buy in to the basic ingredients every culture possesses. Consider this fact: if you were to travel to a foreign country, you’d immediately notice three differentiators in that culture that set it apart from others. All countries possess ingredients that make it unique. In the same way, great cultures embed these differentiators into the staff and faculty to naturally cultivate the environment to foster the growth of more. All cultures have:

  • Customs. There are traditions and behaviors people practice that instill an atmosphere. In England, people drive on the left hand side of the road. In America, we have a different custom. All great organizations possess customs which further the culture.
  • Values. There are beliefs and convictions people embrace that instill certain conduct. In our country, we value freedom, which causes Americans to behave a certain way and talk a certain way when we travel elsewhere. Values come out when we talk and act.
  • Language. Finally, every country speaks a primary language. In France, they speak French. In Spain, they speak Spanish. Effective schools and organizations also create a vernacular—a language of leadership—that speeds the perpetuation of the culture. 

The good news is, we don’t have to be the most brilliant person in the world to create a great school or classroom. We do, however, have to be “culture builders” who pull out the best in others. What I believe today is that our culture has everything to do with our bottom line, now and into the future. What an opportunity we have in front of us.

How do you nurture a culture of leadership? Let us know below.

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