Have you ever heard the aphorism to truly understand something you have to look at it another way? Well, sometimes you have to turn it upside down.

Paul Hebert, a blogger I always learn from and author of the i2i blog, recently posted an interesting perspective on corporate culture. In discussing corporate culture, Paul presents the usual pyramid of a broad employee base on the bottom, a smaller layer of middle management, and the smallest group – senior executives – at the point on top. The problem with this view, Paul argues, is the appearance that senior execs are less important to driving company culture.

To fix the perspective, Paul turns the entire pyramid upside down, with the broad base of employees at the top, middle managers in between, and the small point of senior execs on the bottom. Paul’s point:

When I see this image I think – wow – that thing could tip over at any time if the bottom level (now the senior managers) ever crumbled or if it moved in any direction. The entire culture is now supported by a fine point at the top (now the bottom) of the pyramid.

From my point of view this communicates much better how important the senior levels are with respect to defining and driving culture in an organisation. Flipping the pyramid truly highlights the precariousness of culture in an organisation.

It won’t take much to tip that inverted pyramid over. And we’ve seen it happen time and time again. One or two bad apples can really affect the organisation’s culture.

This is a wise observation from Paul. While it’s true that a company’s culture is more of an ethos than a malleable “thing” that can be influenced by anyone, it’s also true that the senior executives wield much greater power in their ability to change a company culture – for the better or for the worse.

I’ve commented before on targeted examples of culture destruction at Home Depot and Delta Airlines that happened in a relatively short period of time and were the direct result of the actions and attitudes of new chief executives. On the positive side is the classic example of Tony Hsieh at Zappos and his commitment as CEO to only hire those employees who not only fit within the culture but will actively live and promote the values and behaviours that create the culture.

This is why it’s critical for the CEO to actively desire and promote strategic recognition as a powerful mechanism for promoting desired values and behaviours through the work of all employees. With such influence and direction, the CEO can make the foundation of the culture much more stable and less likely to crumble.