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Sorry It’s So Ugly


Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) was standing in line behind me to board our flight to Washington D.C. We’ve shared this flight dozens of times, but we’ve never spoken, namely because he gets inundated with people “just wanting a moment”.

Senator Bennet is a fairly soft-spoken person in the interactions. He politely listens and keeps his responses short and to the point. I was however, struck by a phrase he used no less than three times in the span of about 5 minutes. Each time someone thanked him for his hard work, he thanked them and then said, “I am sorry it is so ugly.”

He was, of course, referring to the present culture of Washington, D.C.. As I stood and listened it was all I could do to keep from responding by saying “It is supposed to be ugly!” The entire system is built upon conflict. Over 200 years ago, our Founding Fathers built an adversarial system designed to keep government at bay. They crafted a culture of checks and balances which is a nice way of saying they pitted one branch of government against another. They put into place the need for debate, argument and voting.

I am unaware of any system in our world that uses such a system where the process isn’t contentious, isn’t arduous, isn’t ugly. Ideally, we may want a culture of efficiency, expediency or politeness, but that is not the “Legacy Culture” of our government.

In our work with both private and public clients, we seek to understand an organization’s Legacy Culture, or the culture that was crafted long ago by people no longer around (i.e. The Founding Fathers). Legacy Culture is often prominent and revered. It can be found in companies like Ford and G.E. It is this culture that can keep organizations grounded and on track.

But the Legacy Culture can also be the thing that hinders new ideas, innovation and change. In other words, Legacy Culture can be both good and bad. Knowing what it is, how it looks and what it smells like can be a catalyst for change and growth.

In work with two of our clients, Legacy Culture plays a very prominent role. In the early 1980’s the Air Traffic Controllers at the FAA went on strike in direct violation of federal law. As a result, President Reagan fired over 11,000 controllers! The ripple effect of this event still continues 30 years later. It has become a part of their legacy culture.

The biggest impact it has is that the FAA struggles with the mass retirement of the replacement workers. An entire workforce was hired all at the same time and most were the same age (in their mid-twenties). Today, they are rapidly reaching retirement age. This affects how the FAA does succession planning, training, and strategic planning. The Legacy Culture in this case is a heavy burden.

On the flip side, I have been serving as an Executive Advisor to a Senior Executive of a 35,000 person organization. She has been in her position for about a year and is following in the footsteps of a long-serving predecessor. She feels the weight of wanting to maintain the high standard of excellence and commitment that he did. She is wanting to ensure that her team is well led, cared for and challenged. While she is very competent and qualified, she has stepped into a higher level of influence and is wanting to develop her skills to rise to this new level. She understands the Legacy Culture she has inherited and wants to protect it.

I often hear people lament how broken our system has become. That it is far worse than in any time in our history. You need not search far to discover that is simply not the case. In today’s political culture it is not uncommon to hear our leaders referred to as “dishonest” … “an idiot” … “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity.” And while that may be true of today, all of these things were – literally – said about Abraham Lincoln!

In 1804 the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr challenged the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to a duel. On a bluff in Weehawken, New Jersey, Vice President Burr shot and killed Hamilton. Now that is ugly.

What is the Legacy Culture of your organization? Is it helping? Or hurting?

Trevor J. Bron is a Culture Architect and Executive Advisor for TAG.