In August, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly announced the motto for Team 127, this year’s addition to the storied history of the Fightin’ Irish: “Culture Beats Scheme.” Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Some commentators pointed out that the phrase started with Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly (no relation to Brian) who said, “culture will beat scheme every day.” Brian Kelly may have taken some liberties in borrowing the phrase, but it is obvious why he chose such a clear guiding principle.
In spite of the relevance of this motto for a football team—or any team for that matter—one commentator wrote that it was “too vague to really mean anything” (Al Leser, South Bend Tribune, 6 August 2015, “Will culture beat scheme at Notre Dame?”). Chip Kelly would surely disagree, describing the original statement as “pretty straightforward, black and white.”
For those who might not appreciate the simple logic, an examination of the phrase may help. Merriam-Webster defines culture as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” The same dictionary defines scheme as “an official plan or program of action.”
Both coaches clearly understand that the way athletes think, behave, and interact as a team means more to on-field success than their game plan. The same applies in the military; organizational behavior is more important than strategy. Plans and strategy are essential, but real success hinges on building a culture that supports them.
Determining whether or not the desired culture is being cultivated in a group can be difficult, but the military services have a tool: the command-climate survey. These assessments measure how well an individual unit, a subculture of the larger organization, upholds the service culture. The questions posed in the assessments compare the command climate—how leadership and team activities are perceived by group members—to the expectations of service core values. Leaders throughout the chain of command must consider the results from that viewpoint; do command actions uphold and support our core values?
Command-climate surveys help uncover toxic environments by identifying negative cultural aspects that may not be visible to casual observers or reported through other means. Many organizations succeed in their mission, but at what cost? If team members are disrespected or demoralized, discriminated against or held back, is the unit truly successful? Leaders must not judge success and failure by mission results alone. “Success” at the expense of people is failure. Truly successful commands promote a positive culture and support our core values as a means of achieving mission goals.
When reviewing an organization, there are several indicators of positive and negative culture. It shows itself in the most important areas. In positive cultures, commands are driven by and succeed through teamwork, not negative internal competition. Their employees are valued and recognized fairly and are consequently engaged, dedicated, and loyal. Team members react appropriately to setbacks, overcome deficiencies, and ultimately succeed. People have trust in the organization; up, down, and across the hierarchy. Decisions are values-based, not politically or personally driven.
Values-based decision-making is a great way for leaders to guide themselves and teach subordinates. When we make decisions with our core values in mind, and demand the same from subordinates and peers, we ensure that our actions are honorable, courageous, and committed. This is true in any organization, a university or military service, a football team or a training command.
In sports, business, and combat, culture is the root of success or failure. Leaders at all levels must recognize this and understand the proper cause and effect. Positive behaviors and conditions do not determine the organizational culture. The proper culture ensures these behaviors and conditions occur.
Culture is the organizational trump card. It drives true success more than any other attribute. In the Sea Services, culture is reflected in our mottos: Semper Paratus, Semper Fidelis, and Semper Fortis. No one would dare write that these phrases are vague and meaningless. To those who live them, these phrases do not simply describe service culture, they are service culture. Leaders must support and enhance these phrases and our core values with every action and every decision, because culture beats scheme.
Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. His June 2012 Proceedings column, “Bring Back Humility,” was included in the recently published Naval Leadership, a volume in the U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Book series.