Leadership and Organizational Culture Transformation in Professional Sport

By Frontiera, Joe | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Leadership and Organizational Culture Transformation in Professional Sport


Frontiera, Joe, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


Abstract

Organizational culture has long been recognized as a critical component that can facilitate high performance in business (Balthazard, Cooke, & Potter, 2006). The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine the phenomena of organizational culture change in professional sport (NBA, MLB, and NFL). Six owners or general managers who had successfully brought their organizations through organizational culture change, as evidenced by their team's performance, agreed to an in-person interview. Five primary themes emerged (Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Culture, My Way, Walk the Talk, Embedding New Culture, and Our Way) which together formed an initial model for organizational culture change in professional sport: the Culture Change Cycle. Each theme is discussed in depth, and differences across sport and role are explained.

Keywords

Organizational culture, culture change, leadership, performance

Introduction

Seven games into the 2008 NFL season, management within the San Francisco 49ers fired head coach Mike Nolan after he accrued an overall record of 18-37. Similarly, seventeen games into the 2008 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors fired Sam Mitchell as their head coach.

Mitchell had led his team to the playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, and won the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 campaign. Rightly or wrongly, this has become standard practice in the United States. When a sport organization underperforms the blame usually falls on the coach.

However, it is possible and even likely that a poor-performing sport organizations' issues extend deeper than the coach. In fact, some personnel changes are often prefaced with a statement that suggests "a culture change is needed". For example, when Rick Sund was hired as the new general manager for the Atlanta Hawks, it was reported that in his efforts to build a sustainable, winning team, his primary task was to "try to usher in a culture change in an organization that has been somewhat resistant to outside influence" (p. 1; Smith, 2008).

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore how accomplished leaders in professional sport have been able to alter the culture of their respective organizations to improve on-field or on-court performance. In an effort to further examine the potential relationship between organizational culture and performance in professional sport, it is first necessary to understand both of the archetypal definitions of organizational culture as well as the multiple approaches to cultural research.

Organizational Culture & Performance

Organizational culture, in laymen's terms, is often described as "the way we do things around here" or the values that hold an organization together, yet academics have struggled to find consensus on a precise definition of culture. Ideational definitions emphasize cognitive aspects of culture, such as 'meanings' and 'understandings' (Martin, 2002). For example, Louis (1985) defined culture as a set of "meanings shared by a group of people" (p. 74). Researchers relying on an ideational approach, for example, would examine the meaning organizational members attribute to common myths or stories within the organization. Other definitions of culture are primarily materialistic, and focus on the material manifestation of ideations. Mills (1988) suggested that culture is the "manifestations of a process of ideational development located within a context of definite material conditions" (p. 366). A researcher relying on the materialistic approach would examine dress, workplace environment, hierarchy, and job descriptions. Subjectively, the researcher must determine what each materialistic item means.

Along with multiple approaches to defining culture, there are diverse methods to approaching cultural research: integration, differentiation, and fragmentation (Meyerson & Martin, 1987). Studies from the integration perspective assume that all members in an organization share one consensus of culture, and there is clarity surrounding this consensus. …

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