Leaders have a fundamental impact on organizational culture, but leadership isn’t restricted to senior employees or those with power. Changemakers can come from anywhere. Discover what it takes to be a leader at work and how it can benefit you and those around you.

How to be a leader at work

The old, accepted models of leadership have come undone in recent years. In an age when we have access to diverse voices around the world, leadership on the most important matters no longer comes solely from politicians or CEOs. 

From climate change to poverty, the drive to change the status quo doesn’t just come from those with established positions but from people with passion and knowledge too. 

And, with radical shifts in our workplaces still ongoing, the time is right for more people within organizations to step up and be leaders.

After all, leadership isn’t a job description, it’s a mindset.


Engage your staff with the most efficient digital workplace tools

As a leader, do you have the right resources at hand to make a tangible impact on your organization’s culture?

By listening to the expertise and experience of leaders at every level, businesses can find solutions to the common challenges around delivery, communication, accessibility, and equality that every organization faces. We need these leader-doers to help make company culture better. 

For anyone who desires change but doesn’t see themself as a “natural leader”, this article contains practical tips that anyone can use to amplify their voice during a time when our organizational cultures need it most.

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Organizational culture and leadership

Organizational cultures derive from the shared beliefs, ethics, and norms of everyone within a community (in this case a workplace). While people in positions of seniority and power are often perceived as leaders who set the tone, these cultural norms and practices do not rest entirely with them. 

Culture comes from everyone within an organization, so it makes sense that leaders can emerge at every level too. 

Everyone has the ability to step forward and offer a different view, one that may be so resonant that it creates a new way of thinking or acting. 

While leadership isn’t a job role, leaders do frequently share recognizable traits that single them out as ones to watch.


Engage your staff with the most efficient digital workplace tools

As a leader, do you have the right resources at hand to make a tangible impact on your organization’s culture?

Five common traits that leaders share

Your leaders are the ones swinging the pendulum, and your success as an organization is in their hands. It’s a cycle beginning with leadership style and ending with employees emulating your behavior and beliefs. The pull to follow along with a leader’s designated path is stronger than one might think. Here are five ways your leaders may be impacting your organizational culture.

1. They motivate

Motivation has two meanings and leaders understand both. 

First, there’s the infectious motivation that comes from people who are good at giving speeches or writing rousing emails. They leave everyone else feeling excited and passionate about a project. 

Secondly, there are the personal motivations that all individuals have. Some people stay with a company for job security, or money, or because of a shared mission. 

Leaders are aware of both factors and can adapt their communication as needed. 

The second of these elements – tapping into the motivations of others – is arguably more difficult, so how can you communicate in a way that also helps other people find a sense of autonomy, mastery, or purpose?

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  • Explain the plan – Taking people with you and encouraging them to see the benefits for their own motivations comes from communicating regularly enough that people understand what a change could mean for them and how they can contribute. This is sometimes thought of as the WIIFM? (what’s in it for me?) effect. 
  • Involve the community – Leaders don’t work alone. They solicit help and appreciate it when it comes. Don’t be shy about asking people if there is something that you, the company, or your other colleagues can provide to get more people on-board. You may not have the authority to award a pay raise, but there may be other benefits and motivations you’ll discover by asking people.

2. They share

An effective leader is good at sharing their values and bringing the business vision to life for everyone. 

Providing insight into what you think, what motivates you, and why you think things should change (or not) is key if you want people to follow your example. 

Sharing should be thought of an on-going process too, it’s not something you can do in one meeting and then never have to revisit. Be prepared to discuss your ideas in different formats (in meetings, vlogs, blogs, and social media posts) so that people come to know you and your ideas better. 

Some other things to bear in mind may include:

  • Not pretending to know it all – Chances are, if you’re thinking about a change in work processes or organizational culture, you won’t know exactly how the future will look either. Be honest about what you think but also accept that you’re human and that other people have great ideas. Solicit feedback and show that you’re open to change. 
  • See the detail and the landscape – Many leaders only speak about change on the biggest canvas, but people value understanding how they’re going to get there. If you want to be a better leader, share your more detailed ideas as well as the vision for the end of a project. 
  • Be a role model – Leaders share ideas and behaviors too. Being a role model can take many forms, from letting others speak before you to being an active member of your organization’s ERG groups. Orientate yourself by what is important to you and your colleagues. Leading by example is especially pertinent for organizational culture as it can positively impact those around you to engage and contribute to. 
  • Be consistent – You don’t need to raise the exact same point in every post, meeting, or intranet email you send, but having a set of ideas or themes that you frequently post about show your subject matter expertise and mean others will come to identify you with your ideas.

3. They mentor

You don’t need to be a manager to be a leader, and you definitely don’t want to be a micromanager if you hope to be seen as a leader. 

Leaders are more often thought of as mentors than managers. They are trusted advisors who give their time and experience without expecting detailed reports in response. Acting as a mentor is a good way to share your expertise and to influence people positively without there being the immediate pressure demanded by a manger-report relationship. 

Some things to consider if you do begin to mentor others include:

  • Being sure of your availability – Leaders should be reliable, so it’s important that if you agree to mentor people then you will have the time to perform the role properly. 
  • Setting expectations – Mentorship isn’t the same as occasional chats about work. At the start of a relationship with a mentee you may want to establish a loose framework for discussion. This may include the mentee outlining a work-related challenge they face, you offering your experience, and then time for questions. 
  • Don’t make it all about you – Ultimately, your mentee wants advice and support from someone with more experience than them, but they are still searching for answers to questions they have. Turning sessions into a valedictory tour of career highlights will alienate people rather than fostering support. 
  • Understand the difference between advice, information, and active listening – Every situation demands a different response, and a mentor must accurately judge the tone of the conversation each time. There will be times when you don’t have the answer or it’s not appropriate for you to share what you think. Simply listening and offering support can be a better option than giving bad advice. 
  • Be honest about your own mistakes and difficulties – It can be hard for junior co-workers to understand the workplace and their role within it, so consider sharing relevant background on your own journey. Maybe sharing a mistake you made will help them avoid the same one.

4. They contribute

Organizational culture and operations depend on the contributions of individuals. Whether they’re compiling HR policies or writing internal blog posts about their day-to-day roles, it is employees who create the vast range of resources that make up the collective knowledge that lives in your company. 

Leaders understand the value of codifying organizational knowledge in this way and participate in sharing and raising awareness. 

The simpler way to say this is that leaders are also communicators. They know the value of their work (and the work of others) and they are keen to share news, updates, and resources with others outside of their immediate teams. This is not for personal applause or gratification but because they understand that sharing information and pushing knowledge out of silos is inherently beneficial. 

So, how can you contribute?

  • Volunteer to represent your team at all-hands meetings or in ERGs. Your presence in multiple places will give you a greater view of what else is taking place within the company too. 
  • Advocate for your company or share ideas on social media. Sharing information and offering resources that help others has become a powerful way for individuals to build up their own profile. 
  • If your company intranet supports commenting or @mentioning on internal content, consider adding your voice to the conversations. You may have insights to share or be able to direct people to complementary resources elsewhere.

5. They encourage

Whether you’re in front of 5 people or 500, being a leader means your co-workers will look to you for guidance, direction, and encouragement. 

Developing your own ability to be a leader at work then also involves considering how active you are with encouraging, recognizing, and congratulating other people for their work. 

This is not to suggest you should always be a public cheerleader for everything and everyone. It is possible to be discerning and still be a positive influence on your company culture.  

There are many ways to encourage people, from a simple thank to elaborate gifts, but one of the simplest ways within the digital workplace is to be an active user of whatever rewards and recognition tools you have available. 

If you have an enterprise social network or Slack channel where you can @mention people, this can be a simple way of drawing positive attention to the work of others. If you have a points-based system on your intranet software, regularly awarding your company’s digital currency along with a sincere thank you or well done can encourage your co-workers. 

Some additional ways to be an encouraging leader at work include:

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  • Learning what your co-workers are interested in and connecting them with other people or resources they may not know about. Having connections and being someone who brings people together is an important leadership skill. 
  • As a networker you may also be able to help people to think about career development. Being able to help co-workers or contacts take up internships, find new projects, or gain introductions can boost everyone’s experience. 
  • Consider what people can learn from you and your team. Whether it’s someone from another department or even the child of a workmate, someone might benefit from sitting in one occasional meetings or having sessions with you. 
  • Recognizing when people feel discouraged and supporting them to improve a situation is another part of being an empathic leader. Even in remote and hybrid conversations, observing body language and changes in tone can provide important cues about how people feel. 
  • Be patient and be present. If people are anxious about changing the status quo, encouragement may take time, so be prepared to reiterate and repeat your message. Consistency and presence are important if you want to understand how to be a better leader.

Engage your staff with the most efficient digital workplace tools

As a leader, do you have the right resources at hand to make a tangible impact on your organization’s culture?

Lead the way to a future you want to see

It’s easy to believe that a healthy organizational culture is someone else’s responsibility. 

People have different opinions; some say it should come from the frontline, or middle managers, or the CEO. But the reality is that as with community, culture comes from anyone and everyone can affect it for the better. 

Being a leader at work doesn’t mean you have to be the longest serving member of staff, nor does it require you to have the loudest voice in the room. 

Leadership that creates real positive change is built on more than volume and access to comms channels. 

By practicing good communication skills, being encouraging, acting as a role model, and being empathetic, you can inspire and motivate your co-workers to achieve great things.

If you want more information on leadership and organizational culture, why not check out David Logan’s great TED talk on Tribal Leadership!