Insects are very slowly removing the center of one of the trees in our backyard. The inside is rotting away.

But it’s still alive, leafy, with branches that shade a large portion of our backyard. And it’s huge. My arms barely reach a third of the way around it. I’m not good at estimating height but my guess is that it’s at least 75 feet high.

My husband thinks it may need to come down. First on my to-do list tomorrow is a call to a tree service to get an expert opinion on its continued viability. We want to be proactive and avoid any major catastrophe that could happen later.

My hope is that there’s still hope for our tree. But although it looks healthy on the outside, on the inside, it’s dying.

Sometimes organizations are like our tree: seemingly successful by outward measures, internally diseased. Typically, organizations experience a slow decline, barely imperceptible to outsiders but obvious to people on the inside. Like our tree, they may be able to stand for decades to come. Or, a sudden storm could topple them.

Have you ever worked in an organization where the culture was sick?

If so, you probably felt disillusioned and demotivated, especially if the reality you experienced was far removed from your idea of how things could – or should – be.

If you loved the organization, the way we love our tree, you may have held out hope that the organization could change. As a leader in the organization, you may have worked to bring it back to life, turn it around.

Those of us who read and study about best leadership practices are most likely to recognize the early symptoms of organizational disease. We may also be more likely to experience the frustration, disappointment, or despair that comes when we see unhealthy patterns emerge in our organizations.

We may feel helpless, powerless. Because even if you are the CEO of the company, you alone cannot change the organization’s culture.

What can you change?


You can change your behavior, incorporating best leadership practices.

If you work in an organization where people fail to share important information with those who need to know it, you can choose to share information freely. If you work in an organization where people are not valued and appreciated for their contributions, you can work hard to express appreciation to others and treat them with kindness and respect. 

You are the only one you can change.

You can be the thriving branch on the sick tree, bringing shade and refreshment to those around you.

Join the conversation!

What ideas do you have about how someone could cope with the disappointment or disillusionment that comes from working in an unhealthy environment?

What other ways can one person bring about change in their organization? 

Credit to Jim Collins, whose presentation at the Global Leadership Summit inspired this post.

This was originally posted at Mountain State University LeaderTalk and is reposted with permission.