Some argue that Buddha was the first psychologist. And even though the Buddha predated psychology by a couple thousand years, there is an argument there. He talked about what caused suffering and how it could be avoided and a big part of that prescription was getting a grip on the functioning of our own minds, which is, of course, the primary focus of many modern day psychologists.

In a similar vein, it could also be said that St. Francis of Assisi was the first Organizational Development (OD) practitioner. Now St. Francis of Assisi is known for a lot of things (most recently he has garnered a reexamination because the current Pope of the Catholic Church took his name), but I am guessing that OD practitioner is not one of them, especially since St. Francis also predated OD by almost a thousand years.

But there is one quote of his* that suggests he knew a lot about OD: “Preach the Gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words.”

What on Earth is the connection?

A good OD practitioner, in my mind, has a theory of organizational effectiveness that guides his/her interventions. Most that have such a theory recognize that an organization’s culture is as important to success as the organization’s strategy.

For many, corporate culture is a source of endless confusion and misunderstanding. I am dismayed when I read articles where the CEO of the latest Silicon Valley Unicorn says his company has a great culture and follows that with: “We have air hockey tables on every floor, free food and free bikes, and an full service bar open all the time.” To me, he has listed some interesting amenities, but said nothing about his culture.

For my money, culture is simply the behavior of the leaders. Period. End of story. If the behavior of leaders supports the strategy, you are well on your way to creating a culture that supports the strategy and if that strategy is also sound, you have a good chance of achieving your objectives.
Is amazing customer service a cornerstone of your strategy? Fine. Then how do the leaders behave with respect to customers? Can people tell stories about when the CEO or a senior leader bent over backwards to serve a customer or did something that created a “customer for life?” Do they take calls in the call center? Do they prioritize customer metrics before the review of financial metrics? Do they stop what they are doing or get on an airplane to handle an escalation? Do they dig deep into operational problems that are creating customer pain points and make quality improvements that permanently resolve the issues? Are resources aligned to support great service?

This is why I love that St. Francis quote so much: If the purpose of your gospel is to get people oriented in a certain way, you’ll make more progress achieving that alignment through what you do than by what you say.

Here is a test: Think of the kind of behaviors you are going to need from everyone in the organization if you are going to execute the strategy effectively. Now ask 5 people if they can tell you vivid stories about the CEO or someone else in senior leadership role modeling those critical behaviors. If stories like that don’t pervade the organization and roll off the tongues of people at all levels, I’m willing to bet your culture doesn’t support the strategy. It doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, but it is going to be tougher sledding.

In your organization, where are you leading from the front and where do you think you still have work to do?

* The quote in this post is widely attributed to St. Francis, but I am not certain definitive proof exists that he actually said it.  It's a good quote, whoever said it.