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Culture - 7 December 2010

During World War II, food shortages became widespread in the United States. It was a serious issue because the reduced availability of food resulted in it being unaffordable, not only for ordinary Americans but also for the government that had to pay ever-increasing prices to feed the troops.

The solution was to somehow encourage people to grow their own fruit and vegetables so that an abundance of produce eventually brought the prices down. But the challenge remained: how do you change the culture of people in an entire country – especially those living in the big cities – from being consumers of food to growers of food?

It started at the top. The presidency. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt planted a vegetable patch at the White House. They called it a ‘victory garden’, named after a similar idea in the past which was a symbolic term representing the indirect contribution people could make to the war effort. By growing their own food, people were doing their bit for the war. And if the president and his wife could grow their own food, surely everyone else could do the same.

The initiative caught on. In an astonishingly short period of time, over 20 million households had planted their own vegetable patches and over 40 per cent of the nation’s fresh food supply was home grown. The culture had been changed.

The same principle applies in the workplace. Management textbooks are full of models and theories that provide guidance on how to create a winning culture. But, really, they just overcomplicate what is one of the most simple management exercises.

In order for the culture in your team to change, the process begins with you. Many leaders underestimate the influence they have on their employees’ attitudes and moods. It’s the seemingly insignificant things you say and do that have the greatest significance. Once you identify the kind of culture you desire, all you need to do is personally be the culture you desire. Here are some examples.

  • If you want employees to care, be caring.
  • If you want employees to treat customers brilliantly, treat them brilliantly.
  • If you want employees to work well together, work well with your own colleagues.
  • If you want employees to be high performers, be a high performer.
  • If you want employees to have a work/life balance, have a work/life balance, too.

Being a positive role model requires having a heightened sense of self-awareness. You're on show more than you might realise. The way you act implicitly permits others to act in the same way. Be aware of your strengths and inspiring attributes so that you amplify them, and be conscious of your faults and bad habits so that you keep them in check.

Despite the success the Roosevelts had with their victory garden, Americans abandoned their own vegetable patches in the decades that followed. Why did this happen? One reason is that leadership changed. Subsequent presidents weren’t strong advocates of growing fruit and vegetables at the White House, and so something that was once a national victory was quickly defeated. Leadership changed and the culture changed with it.

 

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