What does a single battle of the American Revolution have to do with organizational leadership today? If you were trudging through snow-covered fields with CCL’s Clemson Turregano a few weeks ago, that question was sure to be going through your mind.

Turregano, lead designer and trainer for CCL’s work in the government sector, decided that sometimes a traditional leadership case study just won’t do. As he tailored a program for a group of Air Force leaders, he recalled a pivotal battle that took place on March 15, 1781 — three miles away from where CCL’s Greensboro, NC, campus is located today.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a tactical loss for the Americans under Nathanael Greene. The smaller patriot army retreated, but British forces, led by Lord Charles Cornwallis, lost a fourth of its soldiers and many more were wounded. The battle changed the momentum of the Southern campaign, as a weakened Cornwallis abandoned the Carolinas and, seven months later, surrendered at Yorktown.

“But the leadership side of the story is fascinating,” says Turregano. “The two armies had distinctly different leadership cultures. The Americans had the enterprising Greene, someone who was able to flex and adapt to lead remnants of an army and local militia. The British army, in contrast, was highly regimented, disciplined and trained. Using CCL’s terminology, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was between an independent leadership culture and a dependent leadership culture — with some interdependent thinking added in.”

Every organization has a leadership culture that defines people’s thinking and behaviors, and has implications for the collective ability to respond to challenges, Turregano explains. In CCL’s organizational leadership work — with clients from the military, civilian government, manufacturing, healthcare, legal sector, nonprofit and others — we describe three leadership cultures:

  • Dependent leadership cultures hold only people in positions of authority responsible for leadership. Authority and control are held at the top. Success depends on obedience to authority and loyalty. Mastery and recognition of work operates primarily at the level of technical expertise. Dependent cultures take a conservative approach to change and emphasize keeping things running smoothly.
  • Independent leadership cultures assume that leadership emerges as needed from a variety of individuals based on knowledge and expertise. Authority and control are distributed through the ranks. Independent cultures value decentralized decision-making, individual responsibility and expertise and competition among experts. Independent cultures focus on success in a changing world and adapting faster and better than the competition. Other characteristics associated with independent cultures include: individual performance as an important source of success and status, an emphasis on taking calculated risks, open disagreement and independent actions within functions or workgroups.
  • Interdependent leadership cultures view leadership as a collective activity that requires mutual inquiry, learning and a capacity to work with complex challenges. Authority and control are shared based on strategic competence for the whole organization. The mindset tends toward collaborating in a changing world so that new organizational orders and structures can emerge through collective work. Interdependent cultures work effectively across organizational boundaries, value openness and candor and see synergies across the whole enterprise.

“Explaining about leadership cultures is important, but we also look for innovative ways to help everyday leaders understand what culture is, why it matters and what role they, as individuals, have to play,” says Turregano. “Our excursion to the battlefield is a powerful — and fun — way to make those connections.”

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