Creating Culture: The secret ingredient to every winning team

     People come from around world to experience Hawai’i. While there are many beautiful places, I often think God placed His special favor on our state. On the day of creation, I can imagine Him saying, “Want to see something amazing?” And voila! Hawai’i!

     It isn’t just the white sandy beaches and crystal-blue surf of the North Shore, Kauai’s lush vegetation or the Big Island’s volcanoes. There is the fascinating island culture, expressed in the ’olelo, or language of the indigenous people.

     Hawaiian culture is characterized by two other key words. One is ’ohana, or family. Hanai (adoption) refers to Hawaiians welcoming a non-blood-related person into their family. Doesn’t it make you want to immerse yourself in our culture?

     When I left the church where I had been on staff for more than seven years, I recognized the enormous benefits of having served in an identifiable culture.

     While I knew I wanted a similar positive environment at our new church (where I’ve been for nearly 20 years), it took a while to work out the kinks. However, I knew what kind of culture I didn’t want.

     Definition is key here: Culture is the underlying, overarching environment that shapes mores and values, which in turn determines its success. This heavily influences fruitfulness, whether a family, a sports team or other groups of people.

     When I think of great sports teams, the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s and ’70s come to mind. Their coach, Vince Lombardi, has been venerated as a sage of leadership.

     With the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ’60s, coach Red Auerbach demanded older players mentor younger players. That culture translated into eight consecutive titles.

     In the 1960s and ’70s, John Wooden coached UCLA’s teams to ten NCAA men’s basketball championships. Wooden has been quoted as saying that he never had to yell in a game because he did all that in practice.

     Notice the leading quality of these teams: they had a culture of “winning.” It wasn’t just talent. You can have all the talented people in the world, but if they aren’t working together, talent is wasted. Legendary baseball coach Casey Stengel once said, “It’s easy to get good players. It’s getting them to play together that’s the hard part!”

     In these examples, the largest contributing factor to success was the coaches. Each one took responsibility for the team’s culture. A team with a healthy, clearly-stated and diligently pursued culture is likely to win its share of games (and titles).

Direction by Default

     Create the kind of culture you want, or—by default—it will be created for you. Whether a team, a church or a business, without leadership setting the pace, players will haphazardly create one. Abdicate this essential duty, and you forfeit a leadership tool. Intentionally set a healthy culture, and your team will thrive.

     So, what kind of culture do you have? Do you like what you see? Or you are irritated? If it’s the latter, launch the process of becoming a “cultural architect.” The obvious person to assume this role is the leader of any church, business or organization.

     Culture can also be shaped by those not at the top. Those who have joined our staff through the years learn our church’s culture. We don’t expect them to figure it out on their own; we teach it, and they observe it. Once they understand it, they are expected to contribute and protect what is dear to our hearts.

Identifying What Exists

     The first thing to do in shaping culture is to identify what exists. It’s likely you’ve walked into an office or even your own home and felt tension. Everyone seemed on edge. If it’s an ongoing thing, chances are that tension has made its way into the office culture.

     You may shy away from facing it, but eventually you must be honest with yourself and let others be honest with you. If it’s unhealthy, call it that. The first step to healing is to admit what’s wrong and say, “This has to change.”

     While I was a youth pastor, one night a couple of women from a missions organization visited us. They appeared to be solid in faith; one had the gift of prophecy. I wasn’t familiar then with that spiritual gift but wanted to “experiment” with letting the Spirit lead.

     So, I made a rookie mistake, giving “prophecy girl” the opportunity to address students with “whatever the Lord has placed on your heart.” She confidently proclaimed, “Hmmm. What is the Lord saying? Okay. The Lord is showing me there is a lack of unity in this ministry . . . blah, blah, blah.”

     I’m sure you can imagine what I thought: “No, that’s not what I was expecting! Oh, my. You couldn’t be more wrong! Who is this girl and who invited her, anyway?”

     After I calmed down later, I realized she was right. I hated to admit it. If an outsider comes into a culture of disunity, you don’t have to be prophetic to discern it. In this case, it took someone from the outside to tell me there was something wrong. I was in it, and it had become too familiar.   

Own Up to Problems

     After identifying the problem, the second step is to own up to it. At first, I persisted in denial. But as I prayed and pondered, I realized I needed to make some changes. Sometimes that’s the hardest part.

     It’s like the story I once heard about a farmer whose bloodhound was wailing on his porch. After several days, neighbor Jimmy Joe comes over to see why.

     Walking up the stairs, he says, “Why’s your bloodhound wailing, Billy Bob?”

     The old farmer rocks a bit, pulls his pipe from his teeth and says, “He done got a nail that he’s sittin’ on.”

     Jimmy Joe replied, “Well, ain’t you gonna do sumpin’ ’bout it?”

     Billy Bob replied, “Well, I reckon when he admits he got a problem and gets off the nail, I can. But until then, I can’t do nothin’ for him!”

     The moral of the story: Admit you have a problem! I’m sure you’re not like that bloodhound. But after admitting the problem and owning up to it comes step three: dealing with it.

Deal With It

     Our problem begged to be addressed. Left untreated, it would have eaten away at the entire youth ministry. The students had the most to lose if we didn’t.

     Again, it’s not enough to know what the problem is. You have to have courage to fight it and change the culture’s negative characteristics. It took a while, but we eventually saw healthy results.

     In the past two decades, I have had my share of dealing with the effects of disunity. Before I get into detail, let me first say that I had to learn how to confront people as well as how to push for confrontation to reach a peaceful resolution.

     If your destination for your family, workplace or ministry is peace, it must go through a toll booth called conflict. We all want peace, but sometimes we want peace at all costs. When we do, we tolerate things that we shouldn’t.

     Avoiding the issue enables those who are directly involved and confuses those on the periphery. I needed to address this.

     Confrontation and initiating conflict are skills I developed over the years. Now that I have developed them, I will often initiate conflict to achieve peace. Jesus called us to be peacemakers, not just peacekeepers.

     Each case of disunity involved a specific person as the root. I could easily identify the results (fruit), but I had to dig deeper, and in time would find the source (root) of the problem. And in all three cases, they involved someone in a close working relationship.

     In one case, I wondered why we seemed to be barely cruising on a “high seas yacht” built for speed. We weren’t going too fast, despite open sails and favorable winds.  We had some momentum and were about to move into our new facility, but everything seemed as slow as molasses.

     Then the Holy Spirit revealed, through some painful circumstances I don’t want to divulge, the problem and its source. After this surfaced, I realized our yacht had been dragging its anchor all along. Everything looked great above the surface; there were smiling faces on deck. But the anchor, a staff member, had dug in.

     After the initial shock, I pushed to reveal the conflict. We needed temporary hurt for long-term healing. Everyone paid a price, especially the underlings who had to say aloha to him. His family suffered financial hardship.

     I paid a price in anxiety, a partially ruined vacation when I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and in hurt because I didn’t see it coming. At my core, I’m a shepherd. I love people and want to be loved. Not surprisingly, after cutting the anchor loose, we flew across the ocean.

     Many of us don’t like confrontation, but we also don’t see peace. Leaders who don’t want to, or are unsure how, to confront others for fear of fallout sometimes allow things to go unchecked. Then it spreads to other staff members and leaders. It did to us.

     I’m glad we addressed it and removed the blinders from those unable or unwilling to stand up to this person. If not trained in healthy confrontation, we can overcompensate and border on abusive.

     If you’re a pastor or in management, it’s important to get that skill or find someone on your team who has the authority and respect to do that. Hopefully, confrontation will bring repentance and change, but if not, show disunity the door. I’ve learned that you can confront people when it is still healthy; these can be win-win situations.

Making the Change

     If you want to change your culture, start by determining the source of the aggravation. It could be a policy or procedure tripping you up. Or, worse, it could be a person like I mentioned above.

     Whatever, it must be evaluated. Some struggle to make the changes required once they discover the source (person).

     It’s like someone who discovers they have diabetes, but never returns for another check-up and fails to take medication or change their diet. This means possibly losing their eyesight, amputation and even death. The obvious lesson? Make the change.

     After removing aggravators, make it clear what you don’t want your culture to be like and eliminate anything that doesn’t line up. You have to be resolute in your conviction and say, “That will not be a part of who we are.”

     Some changes will be difficult. They may involve releasing people not willing to buy in. It will be worth it. After you’ve done the tough work of eliminating, reinstate as you protect and guard your culture. With diligence, your organization will elevate!

What You Want

     Without an intentional approach from leadership, culture settles to the lowest level. But if you have difficulty articulating the kind you want, start by articulating what you don’t want.

     That’s easy to do. What do you not want your church, business or organization to be like? After you’ve come up with a list, write another of what you do want. Close your eyes and answer this phrase: the church (or whatever) I envision is ______. Simple.

     I wish I’d started with a more clearly defined culture. While I had it in my mind and heart, to document it would have been helpful for everyone. So please don’t just make a note to work on this “someday”—start writing your culture statement now.

     Behind every great team is a culture that is articulated, expressed and taught. Combine these elements, and you’ll find that a healthy culture will be caught by your team.

     Once a team is unified in a healthy culture, they will naturally produce victories. There’s no limit to what God can do with a church, business or organization in that condition.


This article was extracted from Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.



This article was written by Mike Kai



Mike and Lisa reside in Honolulu and are the proud parents of three daughters and two grandchildren. Mike has traveled to speak at conferences and to congregations all over the world and conducts pastor’s and leader’s round tables nationally and internationally. Mike is the author of The Pound for Pound Principle and Plateaus.


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