Tone at the Top

In this month’s newsletter I want to continue to share some of my thoughts about culture, and the importance of a strong organizational culture in difficult times, whether that organization is a nonprofit, a business or an entire nation.
I generally prefer to steer away from politics in this newsletter, but I now find it impossible. There are times when it is important to speak up. The Covid crisis is a defining moment for this generation, its profound impact felt by every individual, organization and country.
The crisis is getting worse, much worse. Hundreds of people are dying every day, over 150,000 in all, in part because of the terrible choices that are being made at all levels of government in the United States. It didn’t have to be this way. Other countries have succeeded in getting the Covid virus under control, where new cases now number in the dozens, while the United States uncovers more than 60,000 new cases every day. What can be done?
Accountability vs. victims
In my 2016 autobiography and book of management insights, Applied Wisdom: Bad News Is Good News and Other Insights That Can Help Anyone Be a Better Manager, I asked my readers, “Does your ‘tone at the top’ show respect for every employee’s strengths, contributions, and personal health, comfort, and safety?”
When things aren’t going well there is a tendency for staff and managers to personalize their anxiety and frustration. They identify “villains” and “victims,” thereby creating a poisonous culture that both senior managers and boards must seek to resolve.


At Applied Materials, the high-tech company I led for 30 years, I used the chart above to illustrate the difference between a culture characterized by accountability, versus one characterized by a victim mentality. When I look at the current leadership in Washington I see a victim mentality, not a culture of accountability.
Victims are initially unaware or may deny there’s a problem, possibly because their staff are hiding the bad news. Once they acknowledge the problem, they blame others. They make personal excuses and then wait, hoping things will get better. They fail to acknowledge reality, to take responsibility for the problem, to find solutions and to move things forward. The result is chaos.
Does the “tone at the top” in Washington show respect for every citizen’s strengths, contributions, and their personal health, comfort, and safety? It does not.
In nonprofits as well as corporations, the chief executive, working in partnership with the board, establishes the tone at the top. A board’s responsibility includes the oversight of a healthy internal culture. While the board has limited exposure to the organization’s day-to-day operation, it must ensure that the chief executive is articulating the organization’s values and cultivating culture at every level. Boards should be aligned with those same values.
The problem these days is that the extreme factions of the two parties have driven so many moderates out of power. While at Applied Materials I spent time conferring with government in Washington. I was impressed with both the politicians and the civil servants. As Majority Leader and later as President, Lyndon Johnson got a lot done. Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton and Obama were effective at accomplishing policy changes that made peoples’ lives better and made government work better.
I’ve also seen a major shift at the Cabinet level. Cabinets used to have people with solid (and relevant) experience. You no longer see senior business people with global experience in Cabinet positions. There’s a rising influence of political consultants, pollsters, friends, and family members. It’s a weakness that’s spread in the White House. You think back to Lincoln and his “team of rivals.” He surrounded himself with people he knew disliked him and who competed with him. It worked because he actively sought the full spectrum of opinions, managed the process, and then produced decisions reflecting all the input he received. We don’t have that today.
Today the tone at the top in Washington, and in many states, is poisonous. Leadership is largely absent. Experts are undermined and threatened. The social culture of the United States has been damaged. Without a positive and powerful tone at the top, decisions drift and lives are lost.
Leaders will be judged by their current actions. The role for our political leaders, as it is for leaders in every organization, is to build a culture with a strong purpose, mission, vision, and values. Planning is next: What is the strategy for effectively addressing current challenges? And then, implementation: How will they execute on their strategy?
Employees have the right to strong leadership within their organization and Americans have the right to demand strong leadership from their elected officials.
I invite you to share this newsletter and to request or download a complimentary copy of my latest booklet, Applied Wisdom for the Nonprofit Sector: Eight Practical Insights for LeadersLet me know your thoughts on how each of us can help this nation in crisis, or, closer to home, the nonprofits in your community.
In community spirit,
Jim Morgan

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