There’s been no shortage of global news lately. And yet, amid this busy chaos, the revelation that Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada of Japan has never used a computer did make it to the top of many editors’ picks.

It may be a surprise to some, but to me it’s a fascinating insight into how leadership shapes culture.

Imagine working in your government’s cyber security strategy office. One morning, the entire world discovers that your deputy chief (in Japan, that is Sakurada-san’s job) does not know what a USB stick is (in case you need a reminder, check out this ultrashort biopic of its coinventor, Ajay Bhatt), much less know how to punch the keys of a laptop.

How do you feel? I can’t know for sure, but, based on my time working at Fujitsu and my many trips to Tokyo, I’d venture to suggest relieved and possibly empowered.

Why?

First, the chances are, you knew already that the boss was not proficient: The office grapevine, even in deferential societies such as Japan, will have enlightened you. So, you are relieved not to have to hide your knowledge from your friends and family outside of the office any more.

Second, politicians don’t get appointed to their jobs because of their technical skills. Instead, it is their networks, their allegiance to the party  or the votes they bring to a coalition, and above all, their ability to get things done that are in demand. The great thing about good nontechnical bosses is that they leave the gurus (in this case, you, the cyber expert) to get on with the work. You are now fully empowered to protect Japan against the ever-growing cyber attacks targeting the country, worryingly up 50 percent between 2016 and 2017.

As counter-intuitive, and potentially completely incorrect, as my interpretation may be, there is no doubt that a leader has a critical part to play in defining the culture of an organization.

Memorably defined as “the way people do things around here” by Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy in their 1982 book, Corporate Cultures are actually quite hard to touch and see.

What there is a lot of evidence of, though, is culture as a top barrier to change, and specifically to digital transformation. A Google search on that very string of words returns over 17 million results. (As a benchmark, “Kim Kardashian barrier to digital transformation” yields only 325 thousand results.) Among the most salient are a 2017 article from McKinsey, a 2018 report from Gartner and another one, this from 2016, by EY.

Edgar Schein, a professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, identified that, within a business, an occupation creates a culture — so the IT department can have its own culture, nested in the corporate culture. Ask anyone outside the IT team: Those geeks sure feel different. Some even wear T-shirts to work, like every day.

Precisely because culture is intangible, I usually ask IT teams to describe their culture as an animal. The more advanced more often than not choose the chameleon.

This is because a chameleon is:

  • Most famously, adaptable to its surroundings, which in business terms means a team that makes itself easy to do business with; and ready to collaborate internally and externally, as this thread from ENGIE’s chief digital officer in Paris illustrates.
  • Remarkably quick and focused on its prey. This is the ability to capture opportunities and deliver for the customer. We call it agile these days.
  • Gifted with great vision literally, as its eyes provide a full 360-degree view around its body. The best digital teams not only deliver on their operational commitments but also act as advisors to the business, providing guidance on future tech trends for the mid-to-long term and to preempt them to maximum effect.
  • Continuously building on a pedigree that goes back over 60 million years. This is much longer than the average CIO tenure of 4.3 years, but certainly something to aspire to.

I wonder if Sakurada-san and his IT team would choose the chameleon, too.

Interested in this topic? Find more insights on the culture of change right here on THRIVE.