Great Leaders Create Great Cultures

When was the last time that you walked out of a place where you do business and thought, “Now that is how a company should treat people”? When you encounter a genuine, caring culture, you don’t soon forget the experience. You find yourself replaying that great experience in your mind and you feel compelled to tell your friends about your encounter with that outstanding organization.

Why is that? It’s because a culture that truly puts People First is so rare that it might well be regarded as an endangered species today.

When I throw out the phrase “outrageously engaged, people-loving culture,” what organizations come to mind? You might name Southwest Airlines, Chic-fil-A, or Ritz-Carlton. Whoever you’d identify as the exemplar of a world-class performance culture, the more challenging question you should ask is: What kind of culture have you created in the organization you serve? Have you, as a business leader, created the best possible caring culture for your company—one that enables you to attract and retain the best and the brightest people?

Every member of your staff is a walking billboard for your organization. If you are the leader, the company culture is, quite simply, a reflection of your philosophy about people. Everyone in your organization is the outliving of your in-living beliefs and values!

Let me ask you another question: Are you the kind of leader that all the people in a room light up and radiate pleasure when you enter the room? Or does that happy metamorphosis only occur when you walk out of the room? If you’re not sure how to answer that question, go take a walk through your building. Take a good look at the people. Is there life in your organization? Or do the people you encounter look like zombies? Have you assembled a collection of passionless performance puppets? Or do you have a team of powerful purpose partners? Is your team’s performance characterized by discretionary effort or malicious obedience?

A truism of nature is that everything reproduces after its own kind. Cows only reproduce more cows. Cows can’t reproduce cats, and cats don’t give birth to caterpillars. In the very same way, an impersonal leader can’t produce a personal culture. Aloof, autocratic leaders only reproduce after their own kind; they create cultures marked by close encounters of the impersonal kind.

By contrast, a People First culture is marked by laughter and love, engagement and encouragement, celebration and caring, empathy and empowerment, listening and learning. A People First Culture crackles with discretionary effort. There are millions of people who would gladly take a pay cut to be part of a culture that truly cared about who they are and celebrates their humanity, not merely measures their performance marks for the organization.

When you encounter a great culture you immediately feel it, see it, hear it, and trust it, because it is authentic. A great, life-giving culture engages you and makes certain you know that you are appreciated, honored, and valued. It is a culture based on truth, not built on technique. You can examine all sorts of theories about motivation—I’ve been a performance consultant for more than thirty years; believe me, there are hundreds of theories that have been developed during the last century! But virtually all of these are nothing more than techniques based in behavioral science. Putting People First, on the other hand, is based on the timeless truth about who people are. Putting People First is nothing more and nothing less than doing the right things for the right reasons.

Perhaps you’d like to build a culture like that in your organization, but you’re not sure quite how to do it. One of the most important business maxims I have ever learned is this: You can’t impart what you don’t possess! Conversely, you can only express what you possess! If you as a business leader don’t possess the fundamental definition of what a People First culture is, you won’t be able to create that which you don’t understand or value.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, said “The intangibles are more important than the tangibles.” One of the major problems in business is that we’ve forgotten what it means to be human. Far too many business leaders were never taught it in the first place; they don’t have the slightest ideas what “the intangibles” are! If you are a leader and you don’t like the culture that you have created—either by design or by default—I have great news for you: you can change it! Let me suggest four things you can do to create a People First culture that will boost your productivity, revolutionize your referral business, and reduce your competition to irrelevancy.

  1. Believe that every human being—regardless of sex, color or creed—possesses exalted dignity, exalted worth, and an ocean of untapped potential. Believe that every person you meet is a walking marvel, a fascinating mystery, and an amazing miracle . . . just waiting for someone to listen to them and believe in them more than they believe in themselves.
  2. Conduct a cultural health assessment in your organization, in order to get an accurate read on the current beliefs concerning the condition of your culture.
  3. Empower everyone in your organization to become moment-by-moment, living, breathing examples of your company values, mission, and vision. Make it clear to everyone in your organization that there are no little people or little places; there are only BIG people in BIG places, because every single person on your staff is a steward of your ennobling and inspiring People First philosophy.
  4. Get to know everyone on a personal level. Discover who they are as human beings. Learn things about their families, hobbies, memberships in clubs, goals, strengths, and past accomplishments. Once you learn all of these wonderful things about them, you must never forget what you have learned. Use this wealth of personal information to forge lifelong, trust-based relationships. Constantly celebrate everyone on your staff for who you know them to be and encourage them for who you believe they can become. This creates a magnetic culture which will attract the world to this life-giving culture that your great team has created under your great leadership.

Perhaps you think I’m just sharing my theory on leadership. Let me assert that I am speaking the truth about what great leadership says and does. Mercer Consulting, which is widely regarded as one of the top human resources consultants in the world, recently released their What’s Working Survey. Employees in the United States ranked benefits and pay at #7 and #8 respectively in what creates a topflight work environment. “Being treated with respect” came in at #1—not only in the United States but in almost every region on the globe.

The Mercer survey reveals that the desire to work for an employer who puts People First is not a cultural desire; it’s a human desire. The more you work with human beings of all races, the more you see that people are all the same, and we all desire the same things. A few years ago I was invited to make a People First presentation to an audience of 6,000 in Moscow; despite the difficulty of speaking through an interpreter, I was still interrupted several times by thunderous applause. The applause wasn’t because of my ability as a speaker; the people were reacting to the message. The huge crowd responded because I honored, valued, and esteemed them as human beings who possess exalted dignity, exalted worth, and exalted potential.

The interpreter spoke to me afterward, and he was completely galvanized. He told me, “No one ever talks to us like this. No one talks about being a humble leader.” Everybody desires to be treated well. No one wants to be patronized or devalued.

It’s not hard to develop a great People First culture if you’ll take the time to study and understand human nature. Is it worth the effort? A few months after we presented our People First® Leadership program to a Fortune 500 organization, I received this letter from their Vice President of Communications: “We have seen some amazing results. Our employee retention rates have improved, our earnings have grown and our stock price has more than doubled! Jack, bottom line is that [we are] a stronger company because of you and your team.”

While I appreciate the kind words, I would submit that our client became a stronger company because they adopted the best business philosophy. Belief precedes behavior; philosophy precedes performance. If you introduce the philosophy of putting People First into your organization, you’ll soon see powerful performance as a result!


Jack Lannom is an author, consultant, and international speaker who has been engaging and inspiring audiences for more than 35 years. He has served as a corporate coach for several Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T, UPS, Kimberly-Clark, Ritz-Carlton, PepsiCo, Cleveland Clinic, and Chick-fil-A. Jack’s latest award-winning book is People First®—Achieving Balance in an Unbalanced World.