Organizational Culture, Leadership, and the Power of Being Yourself

Military officers are thrust into leadership positions very early in their career. A newly commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Army is often immediately in charge of a platoon of 30 soldiers. They are responsible for their training, administration, well-being, and overall operational readiness. They are also responsible and accountable for the equipment, which can easily be valued at upwards of one 1M. Regardless of the fact that they have been very well trained, that kind of responsibility can be daunting. There are a select few that arrive at their first operational posting with the confidence and skills such that they roll into the job without a moment of hesitation or self-doubt, and perform as if they were born to do the job. There are also a select unfortunate few that arrive with the same confidence, but are so clueless that things do not end as well for them. And then there are what I would suspect make up the majority – the competent and eager who arrive with some degree of trepidation. I fell into that category.

As I had already completed my training, I was posted to my regiment immediately upon graduation from military college. I did not have the benefit of being one of five new officers arriving at the same time. I was also the second female officer to this unit, so needless to say, I was not going to be the “grey man,” the one who blends in. Nope, flying under the radar was never going to be an option for me.

I wanted what any junior officer wants. I wanted to be good at my job. I wanted to earn the respect of my troops, my superiors and my peers. For the first few months I spent the day hyper-alert and overthinking far too many things. I don’t think I was ever fully relaxed. I was finding my footing, I had established good relationships but I still felt I was being assessed and was not 100% confident a verdict had been issued yet as to whether or not I was getting a passing grade from those that mattered to me most at the time, my troops. And then it happened.

I was conducting individual interviews with my soldiers. One had a break down in my office over personal issues that were overwhelming him. Tears flowing, he offloaded on me. Later, with his permission, I shared the details with my Troop Sergeant Major, my right hand man, the most experienced non-commissioned member of my troop. I made the comment that I had not seen this coming. I was glad that the soldier had opened up to me, but that I was surprised. My Troop Sergeant Major’s response was, “I’m not surprised Ma’am. The troops will talk to you. They are not afraid of you, and they feel like they can relate to you.” In hindsight, that exchange was one of the most significant of my career, and I owe that man a debt of gratitude for the influence he had on me. Without knowing it, he had in essence lifted a weight off my shoulders. He gave me back my confidence which allowed my full focus to be on my troop’s needs, rather than having to contend with the distraction of my own insecurities.

One of the keys to being a good leader is being able to focus on what is important, and rarely, if ever, is it the leader (yourself) that is important. So if you are on edge for any reason, or insecure, or worrying about how you will fit in to the organization, then I believe it is likely to have some measurable impact on your ability to do your job. More significant however, was that my Troop Sergeant Major gave me a license to be myself. Be yourself. One of the most important messages a young leader can hear. I have been reflecting on this a great deal lately, and it stems from a discussion I had within the Defence Woman’s Advisory Organization that brought up a common sentiment offered to female junior officers in particular. That is, “You don’t have to be one of the guys.”

What does that expression actually mean anyway? Personally, I think the hidden message behind it is, “Be yourself.” Though both messages may intend to convey the same sentiment, one can almost incite a rant, while the other inspires me. What if they are not trying to fit in? What if that is just their personality, how they behave and interact in general? Why is it that only a certain segment of employees, or select few, be told that they do not have to change to conform to any preconceived (or ill-preconceived) notion of the acceptable norm or culture? Isn’t everyone worthy of that message?

The comment of “trying to be one of the guys” I find to be presumptuous and insulting. We have engendered certain characteristics or traits and behaviours to our own detriment. It is condescending and infuriating to be told that because I don’t conform to the stereotypical female characteristics that I must be compensating or trying to be something I’m not. Moreover, I believe strongly that framing things in the positive is always more beneficial, and removing any stereotypes or bias or gender from a conversation that revolves around organizational culture and leadership serves us better.

‘You do not have to do this to fit in’ is setting the feedback in a negative context, in deliberately vague manner. If delivered in a one on one interview, it demonstrates a dissatisfaction of some sort, either with the culture of the organization itself, or in the inauthentic manner in which the person is performing their duties. Why focus on saying what not to do? Instead, focus on the actual expectation, or the actual behavior that is causing concern. The message of “be yourself” is one of acceptance, void of any assumption of organizational culture or gender norms. It encourages the member to embrace their individuality which is what adds to our strength as a diverse organization. It is the organization’s (or your supervisor’s) way of saying that they value you when they say they want you to be yourself. We all need that message.

“You do not have to do/be (fill in the blank) to fit in.” Maybe not, but you do have to fit in. The culture of an organization can be defined in many ways, but in broad terms it speaks to the values, goals and practices of an organization. It is the accepted norms, how people interact and work. There needs to be congruence or harmony between the individual and the organizational culture. If they are at odds, there will be dissatisfaction with one of three likely outcomes:

  • the employee leaves;
  • the employee stays but is unhappy and the dissatisfaction permeates through other facets of life, not just work; or
  • depending on the organization and the individual’s status within it, they can exercise leadership and gradually shift the culture over time.

Every organization has a culture, some more pronounced and rigid than others, but there is room for everyone within that culture. Be yourself. While great leaders will always find a way to adapt to the environment or situation, this does not mean they alter who they are fundamentally. We need leaders who have the strength and courage to remain true to themselves. Through being yourself, and promoting that message to your subordinates, we contribute to healthy workplace culture that is capable of growing and is supported by a more diverse foundation.