A New Era for Culture, Change, and Leadership

With the world in flux, organizations and the people within them need close relationships to thrive.

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When social psychologist Edgar Schein joined MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the 1950s, the school had just launched its great experiment of teaching management through formal disciplines like mathematics, social psychology, economics, and history. That was a radical departure from expounding “the practice of management” through cases taught by professors who had been managers for most of their careers. The new approach sparked close, unlikely collaborations and deep, innovative thinking about leadership, group cultures, and organizational change — all nascent fields of study at the time. It was in this environment that Ed and his colleagues embarked on what he calls “an exciting quarter century of model building,” which helped define how people thought about and engaged with organizations.

Decades later, in a digital era, Ed says it is time for a new model, one that is built on close professional relationships, openness, and trust. He and Peter Schein, his son and collaborator, have been working on this model for the past few years. After earning a degree in anthropology and an MBA, Peter spent most of his career as a strategy executive at a number of Silicon Valley companies. In 2015, he decided to join Ed in analyzing and describing the changes afoot as the tasks of management become more complex, interdependent, and volatile. In this conversation, they share their perspectives on organizational life, a brief history of ideas leading up to this moment, and their thoughts about the future.

Ed Schein: Peter, in our recent work together, you have advocated for combining culture, change, and leadership into an integrated process, rather than viewing them as three separate topics of importance. Why this approach?

Peter Schein: Most of us at work these days, in organizations large and small, implicitly accept that culture matters. Whether or not it eats strategy for breakfast, culture is a deep substrate: coercive, empowering, good, or toxic. It does not change when our business has a bad quarter or when we proclaim, “We have a culture problem.



1. See E.H. Schein and P.A. Schein, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust (Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

2. B. Johansen, The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything (Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler, 2017).

3. See, for example, B.J. Robertson, Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World (New York: Henry Holt, 2015).

4. J. Doerr, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World With OKRs (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2018).

5. F. Laloux and E. Appert, Reinventing Organizations: An Illustrated invitation to Join the Conversation on Next-Stage Organizations (Brussels, Belgium: Nelson Parker, 2016), 161.

6. D.A. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw Hill, 1960).

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Comment (1)
norman strauss
I determined back in 1986, during the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme, that the Meta-conceptual glue that ties together culture, change, and leadership is ETHOS; a higher, unifying, missionary or sometimes vocational basis for trust

Ethos is a necessary precursor to operating culture; it is set by the 'Founding Fathers' of a society/organisation/constitution and embeds the shared vision and values which, in turn, predetermine the bandwidth, focus and elasticity of the strategic options and scenarios that will be examined and favoured.

So, instead of using Rousseau's term  Social Contract, I use the new construct of the Ethos Contract to make this point. To my mind, a shared view of 'what we stand for, value and believe', is where trust begins.