The power of culture

Culture is the sum of the values, beliefs, and norms of behavior of a group of people. 

We all live in multiple cultures. For example, I live in a national culture (U.S.), a regional culture (Texas), the organization I work for has a culture, as does my church, family, and neighborhood.  

Culture is powerful. Like the strong current of a wide and deep river, it is often unseen but it is forceful and hard to counter. 

Only by visiting “foreign” cultures are we aware of our own. As children, we’re unaware of our family’s culture until we spend time at a friend’s house. Only by traveling to other countries do we understand our own country’s culture. (Yet another reason to travel internationally.)  

There are positive and negative aspects of all cultures.

Mary and I recently visited Peru. (I highly recommend it.) I noticed these positive expressions of culture:

    • In Lima, our tour guide casually mentioned that Peruvians don’t smoke. Indeed, throughout our eight-day visit I seldom saw a cigarette. Smoking is not outlawed and there’s not been a campaign against it. Why do they abstain from smoking? It’s just not part of their culture.
    • The towns and cities in Peru are clean—there’s no trash or litter. Even small, poor, rural villages are neat. There’s no law against littering, they just don’t do it. 
    • The people are kind, gentle, and accommodating. I never heard a harsh word or sensed unkindness.   

I also observed some negative cultural tendencies.

    • Peruvians are trapped in unnecessary and tedious bureaucratic processes. For instance, there was a long line to get a ticket to a second-tier museum. When it was my turn to purchase a ticket (only $3 US), I realized why: I had to show my passport, the agent filled out a form in triplicate, ran it off on a dot-matrix printer, and then summarily stamped each copy with an official stamp. All that effort to let one person in a public, easily accessible area.  
    • Most Peruvians are Catholic, which is not surprising because when the Spanish invaded their land they gave them two choices: convert to Catholicism or be executed. But, some people still adhere to Inca beliefs, one of which is: the water-god is stronger than the sun-god because every evening the sun-god is defeated by the water-god as it is extinguished by the ocean (the sun setting in the west). 

Leaders: What are some positive and negative aspects of your organization’s culture?

The best time to establish culture in an organization is at its beginning.

Both my daughter and son-in-law are serial entrepreneurs. Recently, they each started a new business—one in the medical field, the other in environmental sustainability. Their businesses have no culture because they are new. The best time for them to establish positive cultural distinctives is now, while the “clay is soft.” Priorities like good customer service, innovation, and excellence can be easily imbedded into the DNA of an organization when it is new.  

It’s difficult to change the culture of a large and/or old organization.

One of the great challenges of leadership is to change the culture of an existing organization, particularly one that is large and old. If the culture is healthy and effective, there’s no need to change, just be sure to hire team members who are a good fit. But if you want to change the culture, be ready for a long, bumpy ride. You will want to hire team members who already embody the values, beliefs, and norms of behavior that you aspire to develop in the organization. Prepare to “swim against the current” for a long time and anticipate resistance. 

Leaders: your job is to establish and maintain a healthy culture in your organization. Be proactive in that responsibility. 

Parents: every family has a culture; make sure yours is healthy and beneficial. Here are some examples: we will acknowledge and affirm the uniqueness of each family member; we will prioritize travel; we will encourage open dialogue and intellectual pursuit; we will be a family of faith; we will maintain a positive atmosphere.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

What makes you cry?

I am a Stoic by nature and by choice. I choose to view life, primarily, through the lens of rationality instead of emotionality. When reflecting on any given moment in time I am comfortable with the phrase “it is what it is.” So I seldom weep. (Here’s a brief summary of stoicism.)

But several weeks ago I was driving down Highway 175 heading to my vineyard, listening to a podcast, and upon hearing a particular story, I felt a swelling in my chest and throat, and I started to weep.

That got me thinking. What makes me cry, and why?

  • When I see pictures of starving children in third world countries, I don’t weep, I get angry.
  • When I experience loss, I usually become quiet and withdrawn.
  • When I watch a romantic comedy (which is seldom) I want to gag on a spoon, not cry.

I have, however, identified two situations which stir me deeply.

  1. When I observe a common, ordinary person extending a simple act of kindness to someone and that action brings about a significant transformation in the person’s life. For instance, my favorite movie scene is in the 1978 version of Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean is caught stealing silver flatware from a priest, he is arrested. When the priest is asked to testify against him, the priest says, “Jean, I’m glad you remembered to take the silver pieces I gave you.” This act of grace changes his life. Another example is the incident that changed Desmond Tutu’s life (click here for the story).
  2. When a highly capable and productive person demonstrates true humility and is self-effacing. (See my post titled “Have more behind the counter than you put on the shelf”.) 

I recently asked my staff the question, “What makes you cry?”; everyone’s answer was unique. 

Discovering what stirs you deeply will give you keen insight into your identity and your values. It’s one of many ways in which you have been “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Question: This begs the question, “What makes you cry?”  You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Was this manipulation or motivation?

Plus: a great article on how to choose a good teacher

My granddaughter, Marin, recently graduated from high school. At her commencement I heard the following story. I’m not sure what to think of it. What do you think? 

During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack the enemy even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they could win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying to the gods, the general took out a coin and said, “I will now toss this coin. If it is heads, we will win. If tails, we will lose. Destiny will now reveal itself.”

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, “It is true; no one can change destiny.”

“Quite right,” the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

We can put a positive spin on this story:

  • It’s important to be optimistic and confident in life.
  • If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish great things. 
  • If you believe that a higher power is on your side, you can accomplish anything.
  • Leaders must engender faith and hope among followers.
  • Manipulating people for a good cause is acceptable.  

Or we can consider the downside:

  • This story is about a charismatic leader manipulating the emotions of his followers. That’s unacceptable. 
  • The general won the battle, but he lied to his men in the process. That’s unacceptable.  
  • If the soldiers discovered the general’s trick, would they ever trust him again?
  • How many leaders are just tricking us into doing what they want us to do?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For sure, if I’m ever asked to give a commencement speech, I won’t use this illustration.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Here’s a terrific article on how to choose a good teacher by Adam Grant, published in the New York Times.

Humans have more in common than we do differences

Recently, I sent some of my saliva to 23andme, a company that does DNA testing. 

For about $39 they send you a saliva collection kit, you spit into a test tube, send it to their laboratory, they analyze your DNA, and several weeks later they send you your ancestry percentages.

My results indicate that I’m 56.3% British and Irish, 18.3% French and German, 9.2% Scandinavian, .6% Ashkenazi Jewish, etc. My ancestry also includes families from North Africa. 

Millions of people, like me, have had their DNA studied through organizations like 23andme (AncestryDNA is another), but because the majority of these people were mostly urban Westerners and East Asians a wider pool needed to be analyzed. 

Some scientists intentionally expanded the research:

“Three research groups sequenced high-quality genomes of 787 people from over 270 populations. Their findings were published concurrently in Nature magazine in September. Two of the studies drew samples from isolated groups across the globe to maximize linguistic and cultural diversity. The third focused on indigenous people of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“Although each team collected and analyzed genomes independently, they came to the same general conclusion: Genetic similarities between peoples of Eurasia, Oceania and the Americas indicate that all non-Africans descend from a small population that left Africa” [Discover Magazine, Bridget Alex, December 22, 2016].

Regardless of whether you adhere to a creationist or evolutionist viewpoint of how we got to now (or a combination of the two), both approaches believe that all humans descended from a common ancestry. If you’re a creationist, you believe we all came from Adam and Eve; if you’re an evolutionist, you believe we all came from a small group or groups of evolved species. 

We all have a common ancestry. 

I wholeheartedly embrace the fact that every person is unique. I even wrote a workbook that helps people understand how they are nuanced (Signature Soulprint). To do well in life you need to know who you are, accept yourself, and live authentically.

But even after taking into account our differences, we humans have more in common than we are different. We are more similar than dissimilar. This should greatly influence how we view ourselves and others. 

The toxic ideology called tribalism is based on an amplification of perceived differences among people and the supposed superiority of one group over another. Roger Olson describes tribalism as, “It is a group attitude of undeserved pride and superiority based solely on identification with a group. It is the tendency to look down on other people for no other reason than they don’t belong to the group.”

Tribalism is expressed in various pernicious ways:

  • Misogyny is fueled by the idiotic thought that men are superior to women. 
  • Racism creates antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. 
  • Religious sectarianism creates unnecessary division and animosity. 
  • Xenophobia is an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.
  • Genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust are extreme but actual results of tribalism.

Humans are social creatures so we do need to gather into groups, but a healthy sense of community will meet those needs; we can be committed to a few without being hostile toward others.   

Peace and conciliation between people groups must start with an acknowledgment of our similitude and extend to embracing the inherent value and dignity of all people.

Here’s an insightful article called The Sin of Tribalism by Roger Olson. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.