One of the things that the pundits have been tangentially mentioning regarding the IRS affair is the impact of culture on behaviors within the organization. It is very true that people in an organization, particularly a mature organization that has many people, have their behaviors shaped by the organization culture. If they go against the grain, unless they are exceptional, they will find another place where it is more comfortable to work.

In the Internal Revenue Service, the culture did indeed impact the behaviors of those within the organization. Certainly, those “low-level employees” made the decision to attack tea parties and other right-wing groups. They felt it was okay to do this, while not making similar requirements on other “political” organizations. The key is, they did this for almost 3 years and no one thought to change their behavior. Either their superiors were totally inept or they were totally biased. I don’t think that they could be that inept.

It’s entirely possible that these people were not told directly to attack the right-wing organizations. However, their superiors probably encouraged this behavior through promotions, bonuses, and other rewards. they didn’t have to give orders, or right directives. All they had to do was give a wink and a nod, and the obnoxious behavior continued.

I have been involved in leadership development and leadership training for 20 years. I have a Master’s Degree in leadership and significant practical experience on a global basis. I can say with certainty that the behavior of the leader dictates the culture of the organization and the behaviors of the workers therein. In the case of the IRS, you have to look to the top. People see what their leaders say and do, and they do the same thing. When they see Barack Obama dissing tea parties, they think it is there right to do the same thing. When they see only rewards, not punishment, for this behavior, they continue it on an ever stronger basis.

The famous case of Beckett and Henry II is a great example. Henry wanted to reduce the power of the clergy in Great Britain through having the bishops sign the “Constitution of Clarendon”. Beckett refused. The fight went on for a while until Henry finally convinced the Pope to excommunicate Beckett. He then said in passing to several of his nights “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”. This was interpreted as a real command and the four nights proceeded to assassinate Beckett, contrary to the Kings real wishes. This is the power of leadership and a strong culture and any leader worth his salt must be aware of how this can happen. If Obama did not actually give the order, his pronouncements and actions were certainly the equivalent of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”.

So, with the IRS, as with the Associated Press scandal and Benghazi, the path leads right to Obama, regardless of what he says today. His behavior over the last five years has shaped the culture of the federal government and his people acted according to their interpretations of what he would want to do in their situation. He set up no controls to make sure that the Beckett effect did not happen. In fact, as we have seen with the IRS, those who should be directly blamed for the scandal had been rewarded through promotion. The people in the IRS see this and they are not likely to change until they see that there is a real desire to change their culture.

A word about culture change. This is extremely difficult to do, unless the leader puts into place people who are willing to make sure that the change happens from top to bottom within their organizations. This is what Obama did when he got elected in 2008. A cosmetic change, such as happened in the IRS, will do nothing but encourage the bad behavior. Obama, himself, has to change and he has to make wholesale change at all levels of government. Otherwise, the cultural momentum will continue until someone does it for him. (One mistake many presidents have made is that they leave the mid-level bureaucrats in place and don’t really do anything to change the culture to accept the intent of the leader. Momentum continues and bad things happen)..

As a community organizer, Obama knew the power of corporate culture and cultural momentum and he knew how to shape it. He know what he was talking about when he said that we would have “fundamental transformation of America”. What we now see in the federal government is no accident and it is not the result of incompetence.

This is why the Chinese proverb says that the fish rots from the head. Our fish is rotten and it will take a lot to separate the good meat from the bad. We have gotten exactly what the American public voted for, and now we are stuck with it.

Heaven help us.

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