Book Summary – Organizational Culture and Leadership (Edgar Schein)

Culture determines how we see ourselves and the world, and shapes how we think, behave and interact with others. Leaders, in turn, are crucial in shaping the culture, direction and outcomes of any group or organization. Yet, the concepts of organizational culture and leadership are so broad and complex that they can be confusing and frustrating. In this book, the “father” of organizational culture, Edgar Schein, combines years of scholarly research and practical experience to break down culture and leadership into useful concepts, components and frameworks. In this summary of Organizational Culture and Leadership, we’ll outline some of the key ideas and frameworks. For more details and examples, please go our complete book summary bundle in text, infographic and audio formatsOrganizational Culture and Leadership summary - Book summary bundle

Organizational Culture and Leadership: Overview

Culture has a deep, pervasive impact on each of us. It gives us a sense of stability and identity, defines what we believe to be “right”, “true” or “normal”, and shapes how we see/respond to events. It’s so powerful because it influences us without our awareness. By seeing the world through cultural lenses, we can start to understand ourselves, our social experiences, and how to interact more effectively with others.

This comprehensive book, organized into 5 parts across 21 chapters, explains various concepts about culture, leadership and how they’re intertwined. In our Organizational Culture and Leadership summary, we’ll organized the main ideas into 2 main parts, with powerful concepts and frameworks that can be used by any researcher or practitioner.  Do get a copy of our full 20-page summary for examples and an elaboration of the various ideas below.

Organizational Culture

Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Quite a mouthful?  Don’t worry, this is broken down further into several bite-sized chunks.


Culture is so complex because it involves multiple dimensions at multiple levels. Specifically, there are:
4 categories of culture—macrocultures, organizational cultures, subcultures, and microcultures—all of which are inter-related.
• Within each category, you can analyze culture at 3 levels: artifacts, beliefs/values and assumptions.
• These assumptions may be applied to a range of cultural content or dimensions.

Organizational Culture and Leadership summary - Understanding Culture

In our complete version of the Organizational Culture and Leadership summary (click here for full summary bundle), we’ll elaborate on each of these levels in detail, and also explain the 4 main characteristics of culture (structural stability, depth, breadth and integration).  Here’s a quick overview:

• Broadly, there are 4 types of inter-connected cultures.

(i) Macrocultures are found at a national/global level, across ethnic, religious or occupational groups.

(ii) Organizational cultures are found in any organization (e.g. private, public, non-profit).

(iii) Subcultures found are in an organization’s internal groups. Every organization has at least 3 generic subcultures: the Operator Subculture, Engineering/Design Subculture, and Executive Subculture.  [We explain these in more detail in our full Organizational Culture and Leadership summary].

(iv) Microcultures emerge in small groups that share a history and interdependent tasks that require them to cooperate, e.g. a task-force set up to tackle certain challenges.

The 3 levels of culture: To uncover the real essence of a culture, you must examine it at 3 levels which add up to create a culture’s DNA or complete paradigm.

(i) Visible artifacts refer to the things you can see, hear, or feel. These include observable behaviors and structural elements, such as physical architecture, products, rituals, language, technology, clothing style, stories, and laws.

(ii) Espoused beliefs and values include our ideals, goals, values, aspirations, how we rationalize them, and our assumptions of what works or doesn’t work. Such assumptions come from empirical evidence and social validation (which we define further in our full summary).

(iii) Basic underlying assumptions refer to things that we take for granted. They reflect our tacit beliefs of how the world works. Such assumptions shape our choices unconsciously. They’re so deeply entrenched that we can’t imagine the world operating in other ways.

• Cultural assumptions must be applied to something. Cultural content looks at what the assumptions are about.

(i) Fundamentally, assumptions exist to help groups to function and survive, on 2 dimensions: (a) External survival and adaptation (assumptions on: mission, strategy, goals and means of achieving/measuring those goals and taking corrective action), and (b) Internal integration issues (common language and conceptual categories, group boundaries and criteria for inclusion/exclusion, power distribution, trust and intimacy, rewards and punishment, unexplainable events).

(ii) Every group also shares deep assumptions about (a) reality and truth, (b) time and space, and (c) human nature.

In our complete text/graphic/audio summary, we’ll elaborate on the above in much more detail so you really grasp the elements and nuances of culture. This includes:
• Detailed explanation of the 4 categories and 3 levels of culture (with examples)
• 2 detailed case studies of DEC and Ciba-Geigy to illustrate the cultural structure/levels at work.
• Explanations of how cultural assumptions are born and sustained to deal with the external environment and internal integration, and the various components involved.
• An elaboration of the deep cultural assumptions and their implications, e.g. how we discover and handle “truth” different, how we differ in our time-orientations and physical/symbolic use of space, and how our assumptions about people affect our human activities, relationships and fundamental approach to people.

Ultimately, culture is deep and complex. You can only decode a group’s artifacts and values by understanding the assumptions behind them. A culture also isn’t “right” or “wrong” in itself—it simply is. It may be good or bad only insofar as it serves or hinders the group’s goals in a specific context.

Digest these powerful tips in minutes with our summary & infographic!



There are many reasons to study organizational culture: for academic research, to decide whether to work for a company, or for a leader to better understand and manage an organization.  In our full 20 page summary, we’ll also touch on issues about research methodology (surveys, typology, observation, etc.), as well as the ethical issues and internal/external risks involved in deciphering culture.


The Role of Leadership in Culture

Leaders play a vital role in shaping any group’s culture. To be effective, they should understand culture deeply and know how to steer/manage cultural change. In our complete Organizational Culture and Leadership summary (get full summary here), we’ll explain (i) the 4 natural stages of a group’s evolution, (ii) leaders’ role and the “change mechanisms” they can use to steer culture in each of these stages, and (iii) how to do cultural diagnosis and intervention in cases where natural evolution is too slow. Here’s a brief outline of the key ideas and elements:

Organizational Culture and Leadership summary - 4 stages of group evolution

Cultural Changes across 4 Stages of a Group’s Evolution

• Basically, every group goes through 4 stages of evolution: Group formation, group building, group work and group maturity. Cultures come from 3 main sources: (i) the founders’ beliefs, values, and assumptions, (ii) members’ learning experiences, and (iii) new values, and assumptions brought in by new members/leaders. Of these, founders have the biggest impact on a group’s culture.

In our full Organizational Culture and Leadership summary, we’ll dive into details of what happens at each stage of the group’s evolution, how leaders naturally shape culture through primary and secondary “embedding mechanisms”, as well as the most effective change mechanisms they can use at each stage of the group’s life (e.g. deliberately promoting certain people who possess the desired cultural values/assumptions from one of the organization’s sub-cultures).

Creating Cultural Change by Design: 3 Stages

If the process of natural evolution is too slow, leaders can also act as change agents to proactively trigger/manage change.  This is best achieved in 3 stages: Unfreezing =>  Cognitive Restructuring => Refreezing.  In our complete 20-page summary, we’ll explain each of these 3 stages, including the 10-step process to diagnose the cultural elements that will help or hinder the desired outcomes.

Remember: Never do a cultural assessment for the sake of doing so. Cultural change should only be undertaken if you can clearly define (i) the problem to be addressed and (ii) the new behavioral goals to be achieved.  And, this book explains exactly how to do that.

Get more details and examples about organization culture and leadership in our full summary and infographic!

Learning Leaders and Learning Cultures

In a volatile and unpredictable world, leaders play vital roles as learners and cultural managers. To develop adaptable, learning-oriented cultures, leaders can cultivate shared values/assumptions such as the desire for proactive learning, Theory Y thinking, systems thinking etc.

Multicultural teams are also becoming increasingly common, e.g. a team may include an American, an Arab, an Israeli, and a Chinese, with various occupational background from engineering to creative design and marketing. It’ll be hard for members to work together without bridging their cultural differences.

To develop cultural intelligence, members need: (i) knowledge of the main cultural elements, (ii) cultural sensitivity, (iii) motivation to learn about other cultures, and (iv) skills/behavioral flexibility to learn new ways of doing things. One solution is to create cultural islands, i.e. a space/situation where members feel safe enough to suspend their need to win or save “face”. This allows them to focus on learning the respective cultural norms/assumptions. Using focused dialogue, participants discuss a topic and observe/reflect upon what they say, how they respond to others, and examine the assumptions behind their thought processes.

Other Details in “Organizational Leadership and Culture”

This book provides a comprehensive review of research concepts, theories and case studies relating to organizational culture and leadership. Besides DEC and Ciba-Geigy, the book includes many other examples such as MA-COM, Apple Computer, and IBM. Schein also explains common cultural typologies, with tips/advice for conducting cultural analysis as a researcher or practioner. Do get a copy of the book for a thorough, or get our full summary bundle in pdf/mp3 for a detailed overview of the various concepts, frameworks, implementation tips and key examples. You can learn more about the author here.


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