“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” -Sir Kenneth Robinson (Educationalist)

In the 1970s, downtown neighborhoods across the United States were in an economic and social downfall. After decades of steady migration to the suburbs, many of the nation’s downtown neighborhoods had been all but abandoned by former residents and businesses. Crime and urban decay were rampant. Yet, in some iconic downtown neighborhoods, culture persisted and in the end, culture would lead the way forward.

Today, most urban planners agree that New York City’s downtown revival was driven in part by a cultural Renaissance that played out in its downtown art scene in the 1970s to 1990s. While crime rates soared and even landlords abandoned their buildings, many artists remained in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. They stayed to occupy and transform abandoned spaces, collaborate across disciplines and create the type of work that could have only emerged under such conditions. Where many people saw nothing but destitute, downtown artists saw an opportunity to innovate—to create work that defied the constraints of the traditional art world. This was art that spilled out onto city’s fire escapes, rooftops, and street corners and art that would eventually redefine what art could be in gallery and museum spaces too.

In 2016, New York’s downtown art scene has already been displaced several times. You’re more likely to find innovative young artists living and working on the far reaches of the L-line in Bushwick than you are to find them in Soho or East Village. In cities, like Detroit and Cleveland, however, similar cultural movements are now unfolding in other downtowns as culture continues to take the lead as an engine of urban renewal.

If culture can transform neighborhoods and even cities—serving as a driving engine of economic and social renewal—what else can culture do?

Transforming Business in the 21st Century

Today, a new generation of business leaders are recognizing that culture is not simply something that holds the potential to transform public spaces. There is now a growing recognition of the fact that culture can be a transformative force in business too.  

Global Human Capital Trends 2016, a study published by Deloitte University Press, found that 86% of executives surveyed cite culture as an important or very important issue. Indeed, the report found that “Culture has become one of the most important business topics of 2016.”[i] Of course, this raises the question—what is culture and how to measure whether or not it is really driving business?

At its most fundamental, culture can be described as “the way things work.” Culture, after all, is about the values, beliefs, behaviors, designs and systems that influence how people behave on an everyday basis. But as emphasized in the Deloitte survey, culture is also “Driven by top leadership and becomes deeply embedded in the company through a myriad of processes, reward systems, and behaviors. Culture includes all the behaviors that may or may not improve business performance. Today, culture is a CEO-level issue and something that can be measured and improved to drive strategy.”[ii]

What does this mean? Culture, creativity and innovation are powerful forces. As witnessed in cities across the nation, culture can even inject value into spaces that have been all but abandoned. But as today’s business leaders are demonstrating, culture also isn’t nearly as elusive as once imagined. It’s not a matter of chance. Culture can be cultivated, sustained and harnessed to shape organizations in powerful and effective ways. In short, culture can drive business.

When you lead with culture, you lead with change. How you direct change is up to you.

[i] Deloitte Consulting, Global Human Capital Trends 2016, p. 6.

[ii] Ibid., p.38.