Every Leader Needs to Break an Arm

by  John Schenkel  |  Leadership Development

Many of my “2D” friends laugh when they first meet me because I am built like the prototypical NFL quarterback 6’5”, 235lbs. This week I met with Carrie Wilkerson (@bareboot_exec) and she gave me the typical first comment “You are much bigger than your profile picture.”

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, the best part of my summer days was playing a sport with all of my friends. However, within in the first two weeks of the beginning of summer, almost on cue, one of my friends would break their arm. This required a summer of patience.

Culture change is hard work and requires enormous patience. Many leaders are by nature impatient people who think results can be produced with the snap of a finger and completed by the end of the week or the end of a quarter.

Culture change takes a long time because it is complex and disruptive. Culture change involves unlearning old habits and acquiring new ways of thinking and behaving. Many employees have invested years in performing the way they are, typically with great rewards.

Getting people to abandon their old ways and embrace new ones cannot be accomplished through an edict, a pronouncement, or a “to all employees” memo. And, the larger the organization and more dispersed the employees, the more challenging it is and the more time and patience it requires.

Coming back from any type of injury requires daily visits to physical therapy and a multitude of doctors’ visits.

Leaders sometimes think their role in a culture change effort is simply an occasional meeting in which the topic is one of many on the agenda or visiting the troops on special days.

Culture change involves daily actions that can be easily witnessed by employees and teammates. Think of the effort this way: how much leader time is presently devoted each day to efforts related to the budget, the bottom line, administration or operations. If the culture change effort is not elevated to at least that level, it will be viewed as an extra, not as the pursuit of a new way of working. Employees have many priorities competing for their limited time and resources, and the “extras” ultimately get ignored or left to chance.

So, how much patience do you have to change the way to do things? Are you willing to invest DAILY in the hard work off the field so your team is stronger on the field?

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Rich Landosky  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply

I think you nail it on this issue of culture change. The next article, however, is how to go about making the change. Yup – gotta give it priority and time, but what are the steps to begin making that change? The reality, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, is that “no one likes change except a wet baby.” Yet, there is not growth without change. So how does the leader go about changing their culture?

I also think its important to note that changing a culture looks similar but vastly different in different contexts. For instance, in my context which is the local church, there are few employees (we’ve got 4 FT pastors, 1 PT pastor, 2 PT secretaries, 1 PT Office Mgr, and some maintenance guys). The rest are all volunteers. Elders, Trustees, youth workers, childrens’ workers, Sunday School teachers, greeters, parking lot guys, etc. All volunteering their time. Then there are the people who sit in the pew each week. Many are there because they were drawn by the particular culture of the church. Start changing that culture and things gets really messy and complicated. People don’t have to stay. There’s no paycheck to keep them there. Or, they grew up here and changing the culture is akin to re-writing the Bible to them. Some of the same issues but still very different.

I think step one for the leader in changing culture is to remember what John Maxwell has stated a million times: “Leadership is influence.” And influence happens one person at a time by spending time.

I think it’d be fun to start a conversation on what the “next steps” are in changing culture.

Deb Costello  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply


I like this post because it illustrates an important point about leadership. I think that leaders are often great at creating a vision or a plan and then delegating the components to others with the expectation that when all the moving parts are finished, the overall vision will be implemented. (i.e. Let’s cut our budget by 5% this year. Work with your teams to do this and report back.) I think the kind of culture change you are advocating requires more than delegation. If you want to create a collaborative, compassionate culture, I don’t think you can delegate this from behind your desk. You actually have to live the vision, to BE this change. This idea flies in the face of our traditional view of leadership as an elevated position in which others have limited or no access.

Perhaps this starts to address Rich’s comment above as well. HOW do we create culture change?

Thank you for the thought-provoking post John.


Susan Mazza  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Wise words John. As a consultant getting the key leaders to embrace what you say here is the essential first hurdle. Until they get that change is real work that must be tended to daily there will be no meaningful change. In fact the consequence of not following your advice has even worse consequences – a promise to change that is not backed up by sincere and repeated action create more skepticism, resignation and cynicism than ever before.

Lolly Daskal  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply


What a brilliant post. You have touched on some very important aspects concepts that I admire!

Letting go of previous boundaries, transforming competition into compassion and cooperation, and supporting the unlimited growth and change of the individual may be some of the greatest challenges that face the business world.

New attitude. Promise of change is not enough. We must take the actions to create the change and learn from each other how to make our world a better place.

There is a paradigm shift in our culture.

Are we ready to embracing it or not?

Are we ready within our organizations to promote integrity, creativity, trust and cooperation.
Are we ready to reduce the bureaucracy within large organizations – beyond the concept of “trust is good control is better?”
Are we ready to promote values that foster life balance support?
Are we ready to to accept that we are spiritual beings and the more we deny that the harder we fail?
Are we ready to understand that this process is never ending?
Are we ready to be ultimately responsible for ourselves?
Are we ready to lead from within – so it can shape ourselves and our life.

As you can see John, your post has brought out some deeper questioning and thoughtful exploration.
Thanks for sharing.

Shawn Murphy  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Hi John,
So many of us who do this work have broken our arms, bruised our knees, blackened both eyes metaphorically speaking. As you said, culture change is disruptive. It becomes a contact sport, just no tackles. You do a good job explaining just how culture change is a contact sport. And since we’re running with the sports themes, the patience you advocate is key to winning the game. You run plays, see how it goes, and readjust as needed. Changing the context in which people do their work is no different.

Thanks, John, for keeping this important topic in our conversations.

John Howard Hatfield  |  05 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Culture change has to be daily. It can not be weekly. A leader has to be in touch with the employee base close to constantly. I found this to be a much easier task during my tenure in the Army, as you might imagine. I also found that my military background (closeness of the group) to be of extreme value when I started working once again in the civilian world.

My first position entailed a complete culture change and a significant overhaul of the training base. The management team that hired me did so largely due to my military experience. I soon found that they were just as clueless as the team I had been hired to take over. The entire organization was in need of a culture change and a military approach was not close or even appropriate for the situation at hand.

As an outsider coming in to attempt “culture change,” the task is several levels of magnitude more difficult than an insider, with influence of course, taking on a project of this nature. This is the situation I found upon arrival.

John, as you mentioned, the process of change wasn’t exactly overnight but did not take very long in the grand scheme. Team members soon discovered the benefits of the new direction and became champions of the process very quickly. Falling backwards was a considerable problem early-on and required multiple “let’s-stop-and-discuss-the-situation” type meetings, but soon the backward trend was just a memory.

As a matter of fact, I just recently posted (http://whathowardsaidtoday.blogspot.com/) a short discussion recounting a very similar “change” I experienced early in my career.

Good posting and discussion.

John Howard Hatfield

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