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Your company culture is your best competitive advantage because it boils down to the company’s values in action, the things the employees do.


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In Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times (Post Hill Press, 2021), author Larry Robertson writes about a new kind of leadership, one that matches these uncertain times and enables organizations to thrive: rebel leadership. Rebel leadership isn’t what you might assume. It’s a new mindset for thinking and leading relevant to every level of the company. Five key insights define it. The following excerpt from his book describes the third insight: “It’s the culture, stupid.”


When it comes to thriving in uncertain times, rebel leaders are clear about what’s key: “It’s the culture, stupid.” The phrase harks back to Bill Clinton’s first run for the oval office and his campaign manager and chief political adviser, James Carville. Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the upshot being, if the candidate and the campaign couldn’t recognize the economy as the priority among voters and imbue it in their plans and promises, there would be no oval office. “Stupid is as stupid does” is how Forrest Gump would’ve summed it up.


Leaders often talk about culture as important to their success. Yet rarely do they go much beyond talk. Why? Why, in other words, isn’t focusing on culture a priority for most leaders–a priority in the sense of treating it as fundamental, strategic, and as important as any asset impacting the bottom line? Actually, an astounding number of leaders would suggest they do, evidenced, they’d say, by their belief that those they lead are largely aware of the culture and by and large are satisfied. The problem is that the data simply doesn’t back this up. Research in the past decade overwhelmingly refutes their conclusion. So do many bottom lines. But there’s a more deeply embedded and dangerous reason we don’t put culture first.


In most organizations, teams, and even modern societies, we tend not to view culture as a pivotal priority. Instead, we think of culture as an outcome, not the driver; as a backdrop, rather than the center stage priority it should be; and as an amorphous thing, rather than a fully tangible tool with the potential of being any team’s greatest competitive advantage.


For many, culture remains elusive, more concept than reality, and something hard to define. Rebel leadership organizations believe it’s quite the opposite. It’s interesting too just how much their definitions of culture line up with one another and share the same elements. I asked Walmart’s Russell Shaffer how he defines culture. Shaffer just happens to have “global culture” directly in his title and responsibilities as the director of global culture, diversity, and inclusion. What I wanted to know was not just his definition of culture, but how he talks to people in the company about it. How does he help them reveal the truth of what culture is now, in this moment? How does he aid them in moving culture to something new or better? Here’s what he said.


“For me, I’ve always described it as ‘the things we all do’–whoever ‘we’ is: Walmart, a family, a country, or a faith, for example,” he said. His definition is striking in its simplicity, cutting through all the gauze that sometimes obscures the view to grasp culture’s beating heart. It’s also concrete. Shaffer’s description makes culture immediate and active. “The things we do” makes it clear that culture isn’t what we did or what we might do; it’s what we’re doing right now, in this moment. It’s an active definition, not theoretical but applied. Kind of like integrity.


“Culture is our values in action, plain and simple,” Shaffer explained. “How do those values show up in what we do? Does our behavior match those values? How closely (does it match), and could it be closer still? To me,” he said, “that makes culture forever active. What you’re doing in one moment may or may not be what you want your culture to look like. But dreams aside, it is whatever it is in that moment of doing. So, really, I think of culture more as a measure than a definition; it’s a perpetual litmus test. For some, it’s a reckoning.”


When I spoke with Airbnb’s head of global diversity and belonging, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, she described it from a similar vantage point, adding texture as she did. “Culture comes from the way people behave, how they engage, what things they give currency to, the markers of the language they use or hear, what’s sanctioned in all of that, and what’s taboo. The things we value–actually value–anchor what culture is, not just what we say it is, but the behaviors that reveal what we value. You can claim culture, but unless it trickles down to the smallest parts, every one of them, it means little.”


What Thomas-Hunt and Shaffer know is that cultural clarity and making it central to everything else actually works. It’s what makes teams and organizations adaptable, even in the most extreme conditions of uncertainty. Bottom line, we need to change the way we view and prioritize culture if we want to thrive in uncertain times.


Excerpted from Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. Copyright 2020 by Larry Robertson. Excerpted with permission from Post Hill Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.


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