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Change Management and the Golden Calf


By Brbbl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Calf is a story about the peril of a leader pushing change too quickly.  As you may recall from the book of Exodus (or from the movie The Ten Commandments), Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in dramatic fashion.  God has brought Ten Plagues on Egypt, and parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from the pursuing army of Egypt. Yet, the people quickly lost faith when Moses was away for too long.

When Moses was absent from the Israelites for 40 days and 40 nights, the people grew afraid and asked his brother Aaron to construct a Golden Calf to give them an object of worship.  This is one of the most infamous cases of fair weather friendship in the history of the world.  After all, the power of God was just demonstrated through dramatic miracles that delivered a people from 400 years of slavery.  But these miracles, which everyone must of seen with their own eyes, were insufficient to overcome the strong cultural bias towards idol worship.

If we set aside the questions of divinity, this story says something powerful about culture: an entrenched culture cannot change overnight, even if an overwhelming set of evidence is presented that is should. During their time in Egypt, the Israelites had fallen into idol worship. And after hundreds of years statue worship, it was too big a jump to start worshipping an abstract God that no one could see.

The solution in the Bible is to create a Tabernacle  an intermediary structure that was kind of like the Egyptian temples, yet worshipped God. This same principle applies today.

If you are trying to change the culture of a company, or to change yourself, a dramatic change is exceedingly difficult to pull off. It is better to create an intermediary goal, something similar to what you are doing today, but a significant distance towards what you are trying to achieve.

And if you are hoping the culture of your company will change, even a great leader like Moses may not be able to pull it off.

What Happens When High Integrity CEO Meets Toxic Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 4

If you take a high integrity  person and put them in a toxic and/or unethical culture, which would win?  In other words, to what degree can an individual influence and change corporate culture?  It’s a question we’ll come back to multiple times in this chapter.

Lets start with an extreme example: What if Harry T Lobo, a highly respected and effective CEO we met in Chapter 4, were made the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a company thought by many to have an unethical culture. (Greg Smith’s very public resignation made public the callus and thoughtless way Goldman treated their clients. See this post on the subject for more.)  Harry, who is not known for his modesty, didn’t think he could change the company value system.  Harry told me “[It would] depend on the company, and how long the value system existed.  Goldman Sachs [is very big and is] proud of the way it operates.”  Harry explained to me that everyone working there shared those values, and the organization is too big to change by the CEO alone.

It took Harry five years to change the culture of the mid-sized organization he is currently running.  When he arrived, the company was full of “empire builders,”  with a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.”  People who were resistant to the values he was instilling are “no longer around.”  Harry said that he let this happen over time, as people realized they no longer fit in they left, and people who espoused the values he was looking for were promoted.  (And see this post to see a case where Harry dismissed someone for being manipulative.)

This is a common theme I heard throughout the interviews I conducted, and is well described in the literature: People who fit best with the company values, whatever they may be, will tend to be promoted more quickly.

So how did Harry respond when he was working as a Senior VP in a toxic culture?  Did he change the culture, or was he changed by it?

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