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One of the Most Expensive Mistakes a Business Leader Can Make

Don’t Neglect the Fifth Column, aka, the Culture of Your Organization

Emilio Molo was a general with the rebel forces during the Spanish Civil War. He predicted in a radio broadcast that Madrid would fall – not only through the efforts of the four columns of troops approaching the city, but also by the efforts of an additional column of supporters hiding within the city, poised to join the invaders.

On October 17, 1936, William P. Carney, a New York Times correspondent, alluded to these supporters as “The Fifth Column.” The term became even more popular in 1937 when Ernest Hemingway used it for the title of his new play about the Spanish Civil War.

Business has much in common with war (also see: The Four Rules of Engagement). Both require great leaders, loyal troops, a well-defined chain of command, as well as sound strategy and execution.

Great leaders of successful businesses realize the importance of properly managing their columns. For the purposes of this comparison, I’ll argue that the five columns in business are:

  •  Assets: The bottom line.
  •  Operations: Day-to-day business.
  •  Resources: People, information, technology, equipment, etc.
  •  Marketing: The image thrust and approach to the market.
  •  Culture: The prevailing approach to communication, productivity, service, cooperation and change.

In this age of acquisitions, mergers, downsizing and reorganization, most top-level managers (CEOs, presidents, and COOs) are chiefly asset managers, as well as promulgators of the vision. Senior to middle level managers usually focus on operations resources and marketing. So who’s managing the fifth column…those inside forces who can become passionately aligned as either valued allies or dangerous subversives? In most cases, it is left unmanaged.

Expensive Mistakes – Neglecting the Fifth Column

Perhaps the most common, and quite possibly most expensive mistake made by today’s business leaders is that they don’t take responsibility for managing one of their most powerful and influential columns – the culture of the organization.

Expensive Mistakes for Leaders

The culture of the organization is usually looked upon as something unmanageable or not worth the effort. The fact is that this fifth column is capable of determining, to a great extent, the success or failure of all the other columns.

Think about how many great battles and wars were won or lost based on how the fifth column was managed.

There are countless studies about the economic benefits derived from treating employees as valuable assets, including Gallup’s ongoing Employee Engagement study, which tracks data on the profitability differences between companies with actively engaged employees vs. the opposite (read: pay attention to culture).

Evidence suggests that treating employees as valuable assets, investing in employee development and training programs and using innovative workplace practices create companies that are more profitable than those that don’t.

In order for a culture to change, the management must first take responsibility for the existing culture and commit to making the necessary changes in their approach to management. (This can also point directly to how the company hires, develops, and chooses their managers: see our blog on creating a hiring rubric.)

The leaders of any organization must realize that they are either managing the culture, or the culture is managing them. Either way, the leadership is responsible.

In business or in battle, the power of the fifth column (the great influencer) should not be ignored or overlooked. It’s time for business leaders to understand the value of going beyond buzzwords and slogans in trying to affect the culture of their organizations. Because in these turbulent economic times, the fifth column could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

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