Lencioni: Leaders Must Build a Healthy Culture

NEW ORLEANS – Joy is not a word often associated with work. However, in the view of author and organizational health expert Patrick Lencioni, joy “is the leading indicator” of whether an organization is healthy and is something he can gauge just by walking around a workplace.

“Are people talking to one another?” Lencioni asks. “Are they engaged in what they’re doing? Does it seem like there is joy? Or do they look like they can’t wait to be gone?”

“If good people are staying at an organization and bringing other people in, that’s a really good sign that the company is healthy,” Lencioni said. On the flip side, the inability of a company to keep its best people is a sign of an unhealthy organization, he said.

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Lencioni shared his thoughts on leadership, teamwork and the value of building healthy organizational cultures in the August episode of the 21st Century Business Forum, a monthly webcast that features one-on-one interviews with some of the nation’s most prominent business minds and thought leaders.

Lencioni told the podcast’s host, Jon Gordon, that “one of the most practical things (a leader) can do for any business is build a healthy culture.”

Striving to create such a culture “is not something esoteric or touchy-feely,” Lencioni said. “The best companies in the world get this.”

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“Southwest Airlines is not the best airline in the world because of technical decisions they make about airplanes or fuel prices,” Lencioni said. Rather, he said, “They have a culture that works.”

“Leaders have to realize that (culture) is more important than finance, or strategy, or operations, or technology,” he said. “It’s the context for business.”

“The biggest mistake executives make is that they think it’s about figuring things out up here,” Lencioni said, pointing to his brain. Rather, he said, “What makes a business successful is, do the leaders care and work well together, are they crystal clear on what they want the organization to be, and do they repeat (that message) constantly” and reinforce it consistently.

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Asked by Gordon what he learned about leadership during the pandemic, Lencioni said, “I think what I learned is that very few people are leaders.”

“Leadership involves suffering, and it is lonely,” Lencioni said. “It involves the willingness to sacrifice for others, and there are not many people in the world who want to do that.”

He said the value of people who put others first and do for others “is greater than ever, and I am hoping there will be a resurgence” in that form of leadership, which Lencioni in his book The Motive calls “responsibility-centered leadership.” Unfortunately, too many executives focus on the money, power and pleasures their positions can bring; Lencioni calls this form of leadership “reward-centered leadership,” which he said is “very dangerous” for the organization itself.

The only motive for leading should be serving others and not serving yourself, Lencioni said.

“I’m tired of people using the term ‘servant leadership’ because it implies there is another kind,” he said. “All leadership should be servant leadership.”

The 21st Century Business Forum is presented by Biz New Orleans and is sponsored by the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, EO Louisiana, and University of Holy Cross.

The Business Forum continues in September with Raising Cane’s founder and CEO Todd Graves, named one of Glassdoor’s top CEOs, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and star of the new Discovery+ series “Restaurant Recovery.” It airs at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 8. Register to view the webcast free here.

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