New Wine In Old Wineskins

New Wine In Old Wineskins

10.9 min read

Dr. J. Howard Baker

A familiar parable is that of putting new wine in old wineskins. In biblical times new wine was stored in strong, new leather bottles. As the new wine fermented, the new leather was capable of expanding and remaining intact. On the other hand, if old leather bottles, which had been subject to decay, were used, the wineskins would often burst from the action of the fermenting wine. Thus both the new wine and the bottle would be lost.

What can this parable teach us today? Are there leaders in the year 2001 trying to put new wine in old wineskins? I suggest that when we try to establish a new leadership paradigm (such as servant-leadership) within an organization without first addressing the need for a compatible organizational culture, we are pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Talking servant-leadership doesn’t make it so! You can learn all the buzzwords and jargon, yet not be a servant-leader. You can know about servant-leadership and yet not really know servant leadership. Knowing servant leadership involves more than head knowledge. It involves heart knowledge! It means shifting your own paradigms and beginning to walk the talk. Servant-leadership is something you can’t fully know until you actually live it! Dare to solicit some feedback from those who work for you. If your so-called subordinates see your leadership behavior as autocratic and coercive rather than supportive and serving, you still don’t know servant-leadership!

Writing to executive leaders, Stephen Covey (Executive Excellence, Dec. 1995) pointed out the need for personal change: “Isn’t it ludicrous to think that you could transform a culture without having the individuals change. To me it is, and yet such thinking is common: everything in this organization should change, except me. If you make yourself the exception, forget the transformation.”

Every organization has an organizational culture. The culture is determined, consciously or unconsciously, by executive leadership—sometimes by just one dominant leader. The organization’s culture, more than any other factor, determines the results the organization achieves.

Small organizations may have a single culture, while very large organizations may have a dominant corporate culture and numerous subcultures. The culture represents the organization’s worldview and what it considers to be reality. Culture is made up of various artifacts, values and assumptions. It reflects the organization’s basic beliefs about what the organization is about, how its members are expected to behave, and defines itself in relation to the environment. The environment is anything outside the control of the organization that impacts the organization.

Organizational culture is unique to each organization. However, organizational cultures seem to fall along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is the power pyramid model and at the other end is the inverted pyramid servant-leadership model. Various names have been applied to these two models. A culture on the power pyramid side of the continuum might be referred to as a traditional, bureaucratic, patriarchic, or autocratic organizational culture. A culture on the inverted pyramid servant-leadership side of the continuum might be referred to as a principle-centered, entrepreneurial, stewardship, or egalitarian culture. In reality, the description of organizational culture is far more complex, since such cultures are multi-dimensional.

Cultures can be examined in various dimensions such as how they view people, make decisions, view leadership, and how they deal with risk, creativity, and communication. In general, the traditional organizational culture values the status quo, supports leadership from the top down, and is autocratic. Those who are effective at controlling others are considered to be the heroes in such a culture. Extreme cases of this type of culture strangle the human spirit and create a sense of helplessness.

The servant-leader or entrepreneurial culture emphasizes the growth and maturing of people, empowerment based on that growth, and promotes creativity. Such a culture values commitment and a passion to serve. Accountability at all levels of the organization is promoted. It endorses serving as the highest form of achievement.

Organizations with traditional cultures tend to be rather closed systems. A strong managerial class and a separate working class often characterize an organization with such a culture. The emphasis of management is on compliance, rather than broad ownership and accountability. Loyalty and trust are expected (regardless of the leader’s behavior) rather than earned. Maintaining control is of the utmost importance. Policing, auditing, monitoring, and surveillance are evident throughout the organization. The influence of ideas or individuals from outside the management class are avoided or ignored. Due to the closed nature of the system, the organization’s view of reality over time becomes more distorted and inbred as entropy sets in.

Peter Block, author of Stewardship (1993), says that having one group manage and another group execute is the death knell of the entrepreneurial spirit. In contrast, an entrepreneurial organizational culture focuses on people. Earned respect, new ideas (from whatever source), fun, learning, and service are typical characteristics. Power is used for service, and work is integrated with managing. Control is placed close to where the work is actually performed, and local units are encouraged to innovate practices that fit local situations.

Robert Greenleaf, who died in 1990, is considered to be the father of modern servant-leadership. However, most students of servant-leadership recognize that servant-leadership concepts did not originate with Greenleaf. Rather, servant-leadership has been around for thousands of years. Servant-leadership is successful because it is based on timeless and universal principles. Practices based on these principles result in a commitment to the growth of people, listening, empathy, stewardship, and the building of community. Greenleaf himself readily admitted he was not the creator of the servant-leadership concept. He was first introduced to the concept while reading The Journey to the East (Hesse, 1956). (For more on servant-leadership, see the January issue of weLEAD.)

In considering the two ends of the organizational culture continuum, Greenleaf suggested that traditional organizational cultures resulted in “people-using” institutions and servant-leadership cultures resulted in “people-building” institutions. He said that lip service has been given for a long time to the idea that people are the most important asset in an organization, but only recently have a few organizations begun to question traditional organizational assumptions.

It is well known that creativity is a key element of an entrepreneurial culture. Greenleaf recognized that a servant-leadership culture was, in fact, an entrepreneurial culture. He pointed out that the concentration of power in the hands of a few, or a single leader, was potentially corrupting. Even though many executives are successful in mastering a persona of humility and openness, few are able to maintain a proper personal awareness and avoid the arrogance and corrupting influence of holding and using considerable power. Greenleaf said that such arrogance tended to impair or corrupt one’s imagination, thus reducing creativity. As one who had lived most of his corporate life deferring to power and being pushed around by bureaucrats, Greenleaf knew what he was talking about!

Greenleaf emphasized that servant leadership is about helping the people around you grow as persons, to be healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants. In reading this description, many have missed the connection between servant-leadership and creativity. It takes a great deal of imagination to create and maintain an organizational culture that makes people freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants. It also requires hard work, and the pay-off may not be seen quickly. Creating such a culture doesn’t just happen, and there is no “quick fix”. On the other hand, an uncorrected wrong action by a single leader may destroy months of building trust. Creating a culture of trust and accountability is a most challenging endeavor!

Books and seminars on servant-leadership are becoming more plentiful. Unfortunately, some organizations “buy in” to the benefits of servant-leadership, but attempt to implement it quickly without addressing the deep, underlying issue of organizational culture. Leaders in such organizations may “know about” servant-leadership, but may not “know” servant leadership!

Short of the appearance of a powerful change agent or agents, the present culture of an organization will dictate the manner used to change the culture. If the culture is based on the traditional model, rather than the entrepreneurial servant-leadership model, it is doubtful that any long-term positive change will occur! In this case, servant-leadership will be viewed as just another “program of the month”. It is important to remember that the culture is bigger than any of us. It is “the way we do things around here”. Therefore, the current leadership will most likely go about reform in a manner consistent with the current culture!

Peter Block describes this process: “The very system that has patriarchy as the root problem uses patriarchal means to try to eliminate its symptoms. This is the dark side of leadership.”

This is like putting the new wine of servant-leadership into an old autocratic organizational culture wineskin. So how does an organization that is steeped in a traditional autocratic culture, make the transition to servant-leadership? It must first focus on changing the culture itself. This is done in three steps. First, the old culture must be unfrozen. Next, there must be a move to the new culture. Finally, the new culture must be frozen. The newly created culture must incorporate organizational learning, so that the organization can adapt to new conditions and alter practices over time.

Preaching servant-leadership to the troops without the leaders setting an example of change will only create cynicism. Trust must be earned by new and different behavior. This kind of change does not take place by talk, articles in the company newsletter, policy changes, or the creation of servant-leadership training programs. Without positive and sustained change in the behavior of the leaders, all this amounts to just more patriarchy!

To make the transformation from a bureaucratic culture, those in executive leadership positions need to stop telling others what is best for them and start listening to what their organization is saying. They need to practice full disclosure and stop operating on a need-to-know basis. They need to stop acting only in the interest of their managerial class and begin to act in the interest of the whole organization. They need to examine existing systems to see if they reinforce traditional bureaucratic organizational behavior or entrepreneurial behavior.

Those in executive leadership positions also need to start building a unified community. This means moving in the direction of equality. Inequality is the enemy of community. This doesn’t mean everyone has the same power or salary, but it does mean that everyone is allowed dignity and respect as a human being. Respect is shown to workers when they are given a voice in the processes and decisions that affect them. Such empowered workers will become the new heroes in the organization.

Trust can only be built on managerial behavior that is radically different from that displayed in the old bureaucratic culture! Until such change is observed, any effort to implement servant-leadership, empowerment, and a true entrepreneurial spirit will be like pouring new wine in old wineskins. It didn’t work thousands of years ago in biblical times, and it will not work today.

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About the author:

Dr. J. Howard Baker is Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Last year Dr. Baker taught an Honors Seminar at ULM, which included a field trip to the top servant leadership companies in America. Dr. Baker has been a Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People certified facilitator for seven years, and has served the University of Texas at Tyler as their facilitator for four years. During the summer he offers a graduate and undergraduate course at U. T. Tyler in personal and organizational leadership. He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University, a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.


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