When I first began teaching, I was young and inexperienced, but I was also enthusiastic and visionary. I had great dreams and optimistic ideas about how I was going to teach my subject and impact the lives of my students. But because of my inexperience, it was also easy for me to accept and embrace the culture in which I worked. There were others that knew so much more than me, from whom I wanted to learn, and because I was willing to listen and learn, I was also willing to blend with the culture they represented.
Over the next couple of years, though, I began to recognize that there was a battle of cultures taking place between three subgroups, and the resulting tension was causing conflict and turmoil. As I began to grow and mature as a teacher and as a leader, I began to incorporate intentional behaviors and choices in an effort to help influence the culture into what I believed was the best direction for the school. I experienced challenges, obstacles, and frustration, but I was not working in isolation, and over time I was blessed to observe positive change, resulting in a much stronger academic and spiritual culture. After several years, the culture had unified and transformed into a healthy – and growing – environment.
However, one of my personal crashes came when I left that environment to accept the leadership role of headmaster in another school. As I entered the new environment, I fully expected to simply transplant the wonderful culture I had just left into this new school, and then the new school would be just like the old one. I immediately tried to connect with students in the same way, and tried to implement the same ideas and principles in the same way. As you might expect, in a very short time and after several conflicts, I began to realize that I was in a different place with a different culture, and I had not been learning to operate within and manage that culture; rather, I was trying to impose cultural norms that didn’t fit. It was out of this experience that I learned that before I could shape culture in an organization, I first had to understand it.
This truth is addressed quite extensively by Edgar Schein in Organizational Culture and Leadership (2010), in which he defines the culture of a group as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (p. 18). The reality is that every organization has developed its own culture, its own way of doing things, its own understanding of what matters to the organization and to the members of that organization. It is often imbedded in the environment, and in many ways is an unconscious thought process that drives behavior, as well as intentional choices of actions and words.
Therefore, before any leader can play an influential role in shaping, modifying, or changing that culture, he or she must first understand it. Schein reinforces this idea when he goes on to say, “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are imbedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead” (p. 22). Culture can be both functional and dysfunctional, but generally, if it is not intentionally managed, it is much more likely to become dysfunctional. It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to observe and understand the existing culture, identifying the positive and negative aspects and learning the core values that matter to the people involved. It is only after understanding, that the leader can take steps to shape the culture into one that is most healthy and productive for the organization. Essentially, you must know your culture before you can lead it well.
I learned this lesson the hard way, which resulted in conflict and failure from which I had to recover, which made my job of leadership more difficult than it should have been. But since then, in three other schools, I have been very careful to first take time to understand the culture in which I function. This time, in these situations, I have found that I have been able to connect with and relate to people much better, have been accepted much sooner, and have been more effectively able to win trust, which in turn has given me the credibility and respect to positively influence culture.
The lesson is simple: know your culture. Take the time to understand where you are, the history of your organization, the factors that have shaped and influenced its members, and the values that really matter. When you do, because you understand, you will be a better leader.