A Leader's Impact on the Organization’s Personality

Why "leading by example" is more impactful and important than you might think.

John Gronski
March 13, 2023

It was in 1985 that I took command of an infantry company in the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. The infantry company I commanded was designated Alpha Company, 2nd battalion, 109th Infantry, and the unit had an authorized strength of 144 Soldiers. I was honored to have an opportunity to lead the commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, and Soldiers assigned to the outfit.

I remember reading an Army leadership manual earlier in my career before taking this command. In the manual, there was a statement that I will never forget. It said that a military unit, and any organization for that matter, takes on the personality of its leader. When reading that statement as a young inexperienced leader, I doubted it. I could not believe that a unit of almost 150 soldiers would take on my personality. I did not believe that someone like me could have that type of impact whereby over 100 of the people assigned would take on my traits.

Based on my experience commanding that company, I learned that I was wrong, and the leadership manual was correct. An organization will take on the personality of its leader. In my case, the commander I took over for was a good man. However, his focus seemed to be more on being a nice guy rather than emphasizing physical fitness and tough training. That was exactly what the personality of the unit was when I took command. Everyone got along and everyone was comfortable, but many of the soldiers were lax on their fitness level and the unit did not go to the field much and conduct rigorous training.

I believed soldiers needed to be in excellent physical condition and I also believed infantry soldiers needed to train rigorously in field conditions, be experts with their weapons, and take excellent care of their equipment. Over time, the unit took on a tough persona.  This was ratified by our brigade commander when he selected our unit to train at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. In the late 1980s that was a big deal and an honor for a National Guard company to be selected for that training.

Since that experience in seeing how the infantry company I led took on my personality, I have continued to hear about and witness demonstrations of this phenomenon.

Setting The Example

I have a friend who worked at a Cadillac dealership. He explained to me how the dealership took on the personality of its owners. For the first several years my friend worked there, the owner ran a tight ship, treated the employees well, and was always engaging the customers and tended to their needs. The employees followed suit and the dealership had a reputation for friendly customer service.

The owner eventually decided to retire, and ownership of the business was transferred to the man’s two sons. Neither son really wanted to own the Cadillac dealership. They treated their employees poorly and were even mean spirited to them. They treated the customers much the same way. The personality of the enterprise changed 180 degrees. Many of the older employees left the company and those who were hired on treated the customers disrespectfully, just as the two owners did. Within five years the dealership was out of business.

Many leaders underestimate the power that they wield in terms of the kind of behavior they inspire in those they lead. Leaders have the power to shape the personality and the behavior of the organization they lead based on their character traits and the way they act.

If a leader does not pay attention to detail and is sloppy, the organization will be one that is not detailed oriented and is sloppy. If a leader treats their employees disrespectfully, employees will treat customers that same way. If the leader is service-oriented, employees will be service-oriented too. Yes, there are individual exceptions, but I have seen that organizations will indeed take on the personality of the leader.

There is a scene in the movie, Remember the Titans, where the captain of the high school football team is arguing with one of his players. The captain tells the player he has the worst attitude he ever heard. The player answers back, “Attitude reflects leadership.” That is a true statement.

In my work as a leadership consultant, I visited a manufacturing facility where I met a newly hired supervisor. Let us call him Mark. Mark said during his first week on the job, he met an employee assigned to another supervisor, but being that Mark was a positive individual, he asked the employee how he was doing. The employee answered back that he was doing terrible, and the response was laced with curse words. The employee’s supervisor came over to Mark after hearing the exchange and told Mark that he should stop trying to engage employee. The supervisor went on to tell Mark that no one talks to that employee any longer because he has such a bad attitude.

Mark was undeterred, and for the next seven days Mark kept asking the employee how he was doing and for seven days the employee said he was doing terrible, but the curse words began to subside. On the eighth day Mark asked the employee again how he was doing, and before the employee could respond Mark stopped him. Mark said, “Now, don’t tell me you are doing terrible.” The employee looked at Mark and did not say a word. This went on for the next few days until the employee finally answered Mark’s question about how his day was going by saying, “It is going pretty good today.”

The worker eventually asked to be reassigned to Mark’s team. The request was granted. Now, the employee is one of the most positive and respectful people in the plant. This is a great example of how a leader could use their personality to make a positive difference in the life of another human being.

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This article was originally published on JohnGronski.com and was republished with permission.


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