How Leadership Can Undermine Culture

October 14, 2013

Note: This posting is based on my weekly “Thank God It’s Monday” that helps you and your company thrive!

This week’s focus: leadership and culture

I didn’t expect to awaken this past Thursday to seeing Santa Clara University on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

Father Engh, University President, made headlines by announcing his decision to drop elective abortion coverage for all University employees. Some would say, “C’mon, Dave–this is a private Jesuit university of practicing Roman Catholics–Father Engh is correct in adopting this position.” And, “some” would be right.

Here’s the problem. The decision was made unilaterally without consulting with the employees. The announcement came as a shock to the University’s 1,600 employees. Does Father Engh really want to shock the institution and culture of the University? One faculty member offered:

“Santa Clara has a stated commitment to shared governance, inclusiveness, openness and so forth,” said history professor Nancy Unger. “This is such a powerful violation of all that Santa Clara says that it stands for.”

Apparently, there will be discussions with the stakeholders about this change after the fact. Too late.

As is often the case, it’s often not the policy change that offends as much as it is the way in which the decision is communicated.

Father Engh is clearly seizing the opportunity to align the University’s position with the Affordable Care Act. The ACA requires that birth control be made available. It doesn’t require that an employer offer abortion coverage. The University is complying with the both the law and teachings of the church.

While it works logically, as a practical matter, the manner in which this change was announced has undermined the University’s culture.

It doesn’t take much for leadership to undermine the culture of any organization–it only requires taking action that is inconsistent with cultural norms. Trust can be made very fragile very quickly. And, that is what has happened here.

[Full Disclosure: I’m a member of the Leadership Board for Santa Clara University’s College of Arts and Sciences. My views are my own.]

Thought for the week:

“I am in awe every day of the power of words. The ones we say, the ones we omit, the ability of elegantly assembled ones to move us.” – Amber Naslund via Twitter
What do you think? I welcome your comments!

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting

© 2013 Gardner & Associates Consulting  All Rights Reserved

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DeNardo Lectureship A Home Run for Santa Clara University

April 14, 2013

I joined the Leadership Board for the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University this past fall. Until then, I confess to having spent little time on campus since receiving my MBA there in 1976. Since joining the board, I heard a constant refrain from the executive committee members: “Wait until the DeNardo Lectureship!” This past week was finally the week. And, now I understand why my colleagues were so excited.

The DeNardo Lectureship is combined with Health and Science Horizons and is a series of events designed to enrich student, faculty and community understanding of modern healthcare topics. As the university website states:

Boasting dynamic and eminent speakers, the series features interdisciplinary programs aimed at inspiring an intellectual dialogue across campus and our community. Health and Science Horizons brings out the best in Jesuit education, reflecting Santa Clara’s institutional commitment to the pursuit of informed ethical discourse.

Health and Science Horizons is presented in partnership with the Gerald and Sally DeNardo Lectureship, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and SCU Presents.

About The Gerald and Sally DeNardo Lectureship

Gerald and Sally DeNardo, Photo courtesy of UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

Gerald and Sally DeNardo, Photo courtesy of UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Gerald and Sally DeNardo Lectureship was established through an endowment created and funded by Gerald and Sally DeNardo. Their vision is for the Lectureship to be the major and most effective presentation in the health sciences at Santa Clara. The DeNardos expanded their vision to include Science Research Scholars, as well as a Senior Prize.

The vision for the Gerald and Sally DeNardo Science Scholars is to support the undergraduate research experience of outstanding science students with Santa Clara University faculty mentors. The Gerald and Sally DeNardo Senior Prize in Science Research is to recognize outstanding research accomplishment by a Santa Clara University undergraduate pursuing a career in the health sciences.

The major events this year included:

  • A keynote by David Kessler, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration head under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton
  • The Gerald and Sally DeNardo Lectureship Recognition Dinner
  • An Iron Chef event—the art and science of cooking healthy food
  • “Hunger, Obesity and Food Justice”
  • “What’s For Dinner? How Marketing Influences Our Food Choices”

I had the pleasure of attending the first two events.

David Kessler, M.D.

If the program goal is the “pursuit of informed ethical discourse,” I give Dr. Kessler’s program an A+. When you hear someone speak and the message takes up a prominent place in your mind for days afterward, you have real impact.

Dr. Kessler is considered the leader in turning the tide on the acceptability of cigarette smoking in the U.S and globally. I know a great deal about smoking. I smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day for 18 years up until February of 1990 when I came to realize I was swimming against a strong current of change. It was becoming harder and harder to smoke where and when I wanted. The non-smoking world was closing in on me. I had to stop.

Smoking was falling out of favor. I would no longer be able to smoke in the office. Smoking was being banned on airplane flights in the U.S. And, there was little question about whether smoking was a healthy choice. It was not. Until Tuesday night, I really didn’t know who to credit with this dramatic change in attitudes and regulations about smoking. Now, I know.

Now, Dr. Kessler is taking on what represents one of the greatest national health challenges in our country’s history: the food we eat. His latest book is The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. In this book, Dr. Kessler explains how the food industry has a disastrous impact on the eating habits of millions of Americans. The food we eat is dominated by sugar, salt and fat which is contributing to many health challenges including obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. He spoke about the current food carnival atmosphere we live in today—there are draconian implications for maintaining the status quo. Current projections show 30% of the U.S. population will be diabetic by 2030, a statistic that comes with huge healthcare cost implications. After 90 minutes with Dr. Kessler, I conclude his message is a message that everyone needs to hear and act on.

Coincidentally, the night after his speech, Taco Bell announced that they are are planning to offer healthier food choices for about 20% of their menu by the year 2020. Bold leadership! Kidding! Taco Bell is the poster child for food dominated by sugar, salt and fat. Taco Bell understands how addictive sugar, salt and fat are and don’t want to negatively impact what their customers crave: cheap, fat, salty, filling food combined with sugary beverages.

My suggestion: Get Dr. Kessler’s book, read it, share it, and discuss it with everyone you can. Dr. Kessler has an important message and perspective. Don’t look for the government to take the lead on helping us address this issue–”we” are going to have to do it on our own.

The Gerald and Sally DeNardo Lectureship Recognition Dinner

The dinner was preceded by a poster session put on by the Santa Clara University Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Key take-aways:

  • I met incredibly bright, passionate students presenting complex research
  • The students did a very good job explaining their research in layman’s terms—I commend them for being able to do that
  • They have very capable, committed academic advisers
  • It is hard to believe how gifted students are today

The DeNardos have laid the groundwork for committed student/professor research and collaboration. The scholarship assistance they are providing is extremely valuable. It was a pleasure to meet and have dinner with several award recipients and their professors.


Gerald and Sally DeNardo have put something in place that is incredibly special. The DeNardo Lectureship Committee is doing a remarkable job of ensuring the vision of the DeNardo’s is achieved. I am looking forward to this event in 2014. And, you can be sure I’ll be telling new board members to come experience something very special!

As I walked to the car after the second night, I had a feeling of elation. It is amazing to see where the Santa Clara University students, the faculty, the campus and the university administration have evolved to. Am I jaded? I don’t think so. I see many impressive things. But, one thing that is unmistakable: what is happening at Santa Clara University is very special.

Dave Gardner