With the Chilean miners successful rescue last month, the questions around how they became trapped in the first place will lead to numerous investigative media reports and inquiries. Those stories, reports, and inquires are now emerging around the giant BP oil disaster this spring and summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

Early stories and reports in both cases have hinted at – or directly pointed to – corporate cultures that encouraged risky behaviors or cutting corners. As more of the stories emerge, no doubt we’ll hear of similar conclusions as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board reached when they determined that the cause of the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle when returning to earth was rooted in NASA’s leadership and culture.

A focus of my last few weeks of blog posts and in tomorrow’s November issue of The Leader Letter looks at the leadership behaviors – both top down and leading upward – that builds high-performing cultures or leads to disaster. Leadership and culture development is an issue that’s widely discussed, badly understood, and rarely implemented with any lasting impact. Ask anyone under age 45 if they’d like to retire wealthy and 99% will say they do. But how many really understand what lifestyle and savings habits they need to change? And how many are willing to make those changes to prepare for some distant point in their lives?

If you’re leading or supporting a management team that wants to transform or change your organization’s culture, you stand at a critical crossroad. Which road will take you to that higher ground? There are two basic choices: piecemeal programs or a long term cultural change process. Be careful as you look down the two roads. First appearances are deceiving.

The piecemeal programs road looks smooth and inviting. It’s broad and well maintained. There’s plenty of company, and the road appears to be going uphill in the direction you’re heading. But around the first bend, conditions start to change. The road starts to get bumpier. As you continue, it gradually becomes apparent that this road will not take you where you what to go. The road winds its way downhill and you advance with little effort. But soon the pavement turns into a dirt track. This starts to get soft and muddy. Before you know it, the road has emptied into a bog. With a sinking feeling, you watch a few organizations struggling up the cultural change road far above. You realize that your organization is now firmly stuck and will have a difficult time getting back on track.

On the other hand, the cultural change road is not nearly as appealing at first glance. The grade is very steep; it will clearly require more effort. For the first while, this road runs parallel to the piecemeal programs route. In a number of places they almost merge. You notice that some organizations appear confused and begin following the programs route without even realizing it. But as the journey continues, the terrain gets tougher. Many travelling companions fall behind, drop out, or cut across to the much easier program route.

As you stay on this course, it gets very bumpy and narrow. In places it’s all you can do to stay on the thin ledge high above the canyon floor. You notice you’re almost alone. And the journey seems to be endless. But when you pause to look around, you find yourself in the company of high performers. You’ve never felt so strong. And then you begin to enjoy the fruits of your efforts …

It’s been said that “no amount of travel on the wrong road will bring you to the right destination.” Many management teams loudly declare their destination is leadership and culture development. A huge majority of managers are interested in improving their customer service, productivity, quality, safety, productivity, or innovation. Many have put those good intentions into vision/mission statements, strategic plans, training, restructuring, IT systems, branding, and the like. But only a tiny minority of managers are truly committed to taking the necessary steps toward improving their own leadership skills. And an almost minuscule number of management teams are prepared to stay the course for the time and effort needed to make permanent changes in their culture.

The American poet Robert Frost’s iconic poem “The Road Not Taken” ends with the famous lines;

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Click on “Lasting Culture Change Means Going Beyond Passionate Lip Service to Involved Leadership” if you missed this previous blog post and The Leader Letter item. It has a diagram and links such as “Bolt-on Programs versus Built-In Culture Change.”