Engaging Culture

Culture Versus Vision – Thoughts from Chris Busch

Chris Busch, founder of LightQuest Media is guest blogging today. Chris is a leadership, management, and organizational consultant for secular companies and non-profits as well. Here are his thoughts on the subject of “Culture is more important than Vision.” Here’s his thoughts:

Culture trumps vision. I like it.

Culture can mean a lot of things but I like this simple definition – “Culture is the way we do things around here.” Vision without the appropriate culture is a bit like a plan without corresponding execution. Are plans important? Yes. But without execution…?

Every organization has a culture, whether it’s a church, a governmental agency, a business, a family… Sadly there often is a disconnect between the vision of where to go and the culture of how to get there. Maybe a good (albeit not original) name for this phenomenon would be dysfunction.

Dysfunction has many causes, but perhaps none as pernicious as insecurity in leadership. We all have insecurities, but insecurity in leadership often breeds much of the dysfunction in the culture of any organization. Insecurity can actually motivate people to great accomplishments. Insecure people can be very driven and overachievers of the utmost degree. But they can also foster toxic cultures because of their needs for control and power.

It seems that insecurity is poison in relationships, and relationships are ultimately the places from which an organization displays its effectiveness or lack thereof. Skills are also important, and if the cultural soil of an organization is fertile, the organization will attract talented people and they will thrive and flourish in productivity.

Humans are drawn to vision and enlivened by the progress toward its actualization or discouraged and frustrated by crippling dysfunction. People react differently to dysfunction in a culture. Some become enablers, consciously or subconsciously seeing that as the best course to rise in stature and influence (and salary). Some hunker down because they don’t want to play the game, but need the paycheck. Others move on in search of greener and more functional pasture.

Without any research data to back it up this is my observation – the most functional organizations I have seen over the long haul have been those who have somewhere embedded in their culture a very simple premise and principle – “We value people.”

Insecure people have difficulty valuing others, because their thinking is so turned inward and so much about themselves, their calling, their vision. It takes a reasonably secure person to truly value other people. Someone like Jesus.

That may be why the whole law is summed up in the saying, “Love one another.” (I’m getting the preach on, hallelujah!) And might that be why we see so much damage when the vision is paramount in a church or ministry rather than the culture (of love)?
Jesus modeled the culture of love. His legacy is that of the perfectly secure leader. That culture was carried through imperfect vessels of clay into the early church and today we still marvel at the impact.

So if I must choose, my vote is for culture. One that says, “We value people.”

Please don’t come at me with the “ends justify the means” argument that people are expendable in the quest for the achievement of the grand vision. As a leader this quest is not all about you and your vision and the utility of the staff in the achievement of that vision. Build a culture of love and respect and watch your staff enhance and surpass your vision.

But you have to become inwardly secure first, and maybe that thread is best left for another discussion. (Hint: Security is tied into that “L” word).

Chris Busch

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  1. Chris, 

    Not that you need my accolades on this, but all that you've said there rings very true with me.

    In terms of the layers of an organization, culture is really closer to the core than outward vision.  Vision steers the ship but without the boards fit together right and sealed against the water, the rudder can be in great working order, but the ship isn't going to go very far.  Vision moves us forward toward who we want to be and the impact we want to have, but culture defines who we are now and how we're going to get there in large part.

    These are abstract and nebulous concepts.  There isn't necessarily a direct corellation between a particular style of leadership and success in all instances.  I think what makes a difference to my observation is that a successful leader is honest enough to evaluate themselves and staff to their weakness.  If you have a strong visionary, conceptual, type A leader, in a successful organization, you can look around and you'll find someone either formally or informally who is either feeding that leader with the information and insight they need to address what they aren't sensitive to, or you have an organizational structure that places someone with the trust and authority of the leader who handles things on their behalf and that leader isn't threatened by the other's expertise or driven by the need to be to top dog in every category of leadership and operations.  Just like you said, self-confidence and humility are what greases the skids.

    It's an art more than a science although science in this area is shedding light on what is happening and how.

    Very good insight, sir.


  2. Very good summary of the biggest problem that any ministry (or organization, for that matter) faces. I think we all realize the importance of vision, but what good is a vision if you've no one left to help you carry it out? Or share it with? Perhaps what we can successfully glean from these discussions is that at the very least, Culture and Vision are on the same level. One without the other is like a shoe without a sock: possible, yes, but not entirely comfortable in all situations…although it seemed to work for Sonny Crockett.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. Theres no easier way to stiffle innovation than a toxic culture where "the leader is always right", blind obedience is rewarded over plain common sense etc etc. Clever and creative people simply shut down and switch off when its simply too risky (and personally expensive) to try something new, even when all measurable evidence suggests that existing methods are not working.

    Major corporations are re-discovering the power of small teams, because the answer to most problems are almost self evident for those who are closest to the problem and feel its immediate pain.

    CULTURE and HABITS define our future, more so than VISION. To use an historical analogy; Captain James Cook had VISION to explore the great southern ocean (as did many other men), but this could not be achieved without a CULTURE of innovation to solve the two problems: navigation and scurvy. Good HABITS make us use what we know on a daily basis – because unless we apply knowledge it is useless.

  4. Kenneth Hagin said, "If you'll make souls (people) your central and #1 focus in anything (your calling/ministry) and everything you do…you will never go off or fall into a ditch."

    People are what make things tick in anything.  If they are not your #1 priority, forget all your lofty visions.

    Chris,this blog is so good, I think I will be emailing it to a few people.  It is sad when leaders wake up one day and the music isn't playing anymore because there is no one to play it.  They tried all their gimmicks, how too's, lists of and forgot that it is the people that God gave them in the first place that would bring it (the vision) to pass…love for people was the missing ingredient.

  5. Yes, ORU, under the leadership of the Roberts, had a strong culture or fear.  We hope that goes away soon, under new leadership.

  6. Good points. Here's something else to consider in the relationship between Culture and Vision. Leadership will often determine if Vision drives Culture, or if Culture drives Vision.

    In a more autocratic style of leadership, it's been my observation that Vision is paramount and that Vision dictates what the Culture of the organization will become because all organizational elements must serve the Vision.

    In a more team-based organization, Vision will often flow out of the Culture. Things such as purpose, mission, and goals are created and adopted as the consensus of a group rather than as the inspiration of an individual.

    This of course is an oversimplification, but this is a blog and not a textbook. 

  7. Bart,

    There is definitely a right-brained art to leadership and organizational dynamics. But this whole area of corporate culture is attracting a lot of attention in management science circles too. Trained consultants can conduct a survey of an organization now and measure about twenty cultural elements including ethics, values, teamwork, communication, etc.

    I've often seen a disconnect between the leadership's perception of the organizational culture and the perceptions you get when you talk to rank and file. Sometimes these surveys can help to "educate" upper management.

    Thanks for your comment.

  8. I don’t think it is even an issue of culture versus vision. The two are synonymous and highly interlinked/intertwined to function and work well. That is like saying love between a man and a woman without marriage is great. You need love for a marriage to work and you need marriage to express love in its best capacity for the highest and healthiest place to do it. Marriage in and of itself does not produce love until the people are willing to humble and respect one another daily and grow their love (something that should be practiced before getting married)- and that takes a lot of work. It is when a person idolises the vision more than peeple who will help that vision come to pass then there is a problem. As you have rightly indicated it all boils down to whether the leader has come to a place of being secure with themselves and how others view them. It depends on what they have built their value system on. Even leaders who are vision driven shows that they are because they are seeking self worth from that vision as a means to show their worth and value. That will still breed a culture but an adverse one – a toxic one but it is still a culture. Hitler is an example. At the end of the day every vision is centered on people and where there are people there will be a culture.

  9. Chris,

    Thanks for the response.  I'm familiar with many of the studies and advances in this area of Organization Leadership and I realize a great deal of it is being brought into the realm of science with correlative studies which measure and tie many factors together.  It's an exciting field and one which holds great promise and is already delivering a lot of help in many situations, which judging from your blog and credentials, you likely know better than me.

    I've done some master's work in the field and have been exposed to some of this.

    My impression while looking at it though, is that it is at best a soft science and it's not always a given that initial studies in this area are not fraught with confounding elements and that at times the scientific approach assumes a one-to-one relationship with elements that in the end proves to be too simplistic a view and valuable only relative to the individual environment where the study is done or perhaps to an industry.  Many times, what you've talked about in terms of culture, encompasses unique elements of environment which when not present in other settings, shows the original study to have failed to account for some of these background elements that the original study assumes by default as constant.

    That's not unusual in an emerging realm of study and much of what these elements are, amount to studies more in the realm of individual psychology meeting at a nexus point with organizational dynamics and group psychology.  As the field emerges, I think there is a great deal that will come of it for secular and non-profit religious groups.  I also think a great deal of the wisdom scripture affirms in this realm will continue to be affirmed as well.

    I'm glad there are folks like you engaged on the front lines and including the christian community.  Far too often we are stragglers in this field and I think our mission and calling should place us as leaders.


  10. Good points. Both are important. I have seen far more great vision than I have great culture. So I don't think great vision is all that rare, but a remarkable organizational culture is quite scarce and precious.

    Perhaps what is lacking is the vision to build a great culture inside an organization that receives at least equal standing with the vision for great accomplishments outside the org. It all starts in the imagination, but it is pretty rare for one singular leader to get the vision for both. Perhaps that is why Jesus sent them out two-by-two?

    Those who founded the United States had a vision for a new type of culture based on freedom and representative government. Look at the achievements that culture (with all of its flaws) has produced. I doubt the founders had full vision for the massive impact America would have on the planet, but they created a macro-culture that spawned many visions over centuries.

    By the way, I recommend everyone read The Starfish and the Spider:The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. It's an interesting study in leadership and organizational theory that goes back to the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Apaches and bridges forward to Google, Napster, Bittorrent, etc.

  11. Chris,

    Thanks for the encouragment.  I've been encouraged to blog by several.  I'm at best a very broad generalist with just enough depth in any one area to be dangerous.  I'm not sure how far that will carry me.  😉

    Most of my efforts as of late have gone into Book Reviewing at Amazon where I've been fortunate to rise to the top 1 percentile and I focus on Religious, Business and History Books.


    I'm not trying to compete on this.  It's simply an area with a great deal of interest to me and I appreciate you on this thread and Phil on his blog here being gracious and allowing me to interact with you on things.



    Wow. This is the best "seminar" I've attended in a while.

    Thanks, Chris, for leading this discussion. The ideas set forward on this blog (as always!) are not only insightful and thought provoking, but targeting the very issues faced by a few of the ministries I work with.  The difference between those faring well and those that are not is based on the culture within. None of the faltering ones would ever admit they don't value people. They vow they do what they do because they value people. But the core of the cultlure has really shown up in the 2nd and 3rd generation offspring.

    Thanks for not only clarifying the real issue, but also showing how to rectiy it.



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