Tag Archive for culture

You Are Where You Are

I grew up in a rural Midwestern community, and had very few opportunities to travel outside of the Midwest. I loved where I lived, and thoroughly enjoyed those things that were part of the unique surrounding culture, things like Coney Dogs and Vernor’s, Ginger Ale, snow days in the winter, water skiing in the summer, and the brilliant beauty of the changing colors of Fall. But then, in my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Europe, traveling to seven countries in two and half weeks. I was given the privilege of experiencing new cultures, and I threw myself into it – I ate waffles in Belgium and pastries in France, I bought a watch in Switzerland, I toured castles and Nazi concentration camps and watched a Glockenspiel in Germany, and I stood on the mountainside in Austria where Julie Andrews sang the opening song in “The Sound of Music.”


The result of this trip was that my eyes were opened to new experiences beyond what I had grown up with, and learned to enjoy new worlds. Without completely understanding the importance of this growth opportunity, I learned the value of immersing myself in new cultures, and I came home with a desire to fully enjoy every place I would live or visit in the future. So when I married into a Latin family, I embraced the café con leche ,rice pudding, mofongo, tostones, and arroz con pollo, and I welcomed the new traditions, like celebrating Three Kings Day. When we moved to Philadelphia, we looked for the best place to get a Philly Cheesesteak, and ran up the stairs at the Museum of Art to reenact the iconic scene from Rocky. When we visited New York City, we made sure to get a pizza from Famous Original Ray’s and a cheesecake from Junior’s, and when we visited Chicago, we ate Chicago Dogs and Giordano’s pizza, visited the Navy Pier, and shopped on Michigan Avenue. Most recently, when we moved to a college town in Texas, we began to enjoy TexMex food, BBQ, and tacos, and threw our support behind the college team.


One of the life lessons I have learned is that each place I have lived or visited in my life has a special uniqueness. Every place has it’s own regional cuisine, particular cultural features and traditions, seasonal beauty, and identifiable characteristics. No one place has it all, and even though you can bring ideas and things that you like when you go someplace new, you can’t transplant everything you like from one place to another, so I have learned to immerse myself in the culture and community wherever I am, choosing to take advantage of what makes that place what it is. I see the sights, I eat the food, I embrace the traditions, I support the businesses; in short, I choose to enjoy and become a part of where I live.


The same principle is true for organizations. No two are the same, and each has its own culture, characteristics, and community. Even though, as a leader, you play an important role in shaping organizational culture and can bring in new ideas that you learned and implemented elsewhere, it is also incredibly important that you understand the culture in which you function. You can’t transplant history and culture (I know; I tried and it blew up in my face), but you can affect it if you first understand it. Therefore, you can’t and shouldn’t make it something it’s not. Instead, realize where you are, embrace it, understand it, and immerse yourself in it. Become a part of the organization, an insider and not an outsider.


In your organization or business, be intentional about knowing your culture, knowing your community, and becoming a part of it. Don’t spend your time fighting it. Don’t try to be where you’re not. Don’t try to make here, there, or there, here. You are where are, so don’t try to make it someplace else. Learn what makes your context what it is and enjoy it, and use it to the advantage of your organization.



Organizational Culture and Leadership, by Edgar Schein

Organizational Leadership, Schein, cover            The first time I had the opportunity to lead a school, I was young and enthusiastic, and embraced my new role with gusto. When I arrived, I hit the ground running, with lots of big plans and changes that I immediately began to implement. The problem, however, was that I had not taken the time to understand the history and culture of the school before I jumped in, and so I began to frustrate the people I was trying to lead as well as the parents I was trying to serve. Eventually, the frustration built to a point of conflict and reaction, and I was forced to stop and evaluate where I had gone wrong, and that is when I began to understand the importance of understanding organizational culture. That was also one of the most valuable lessons I took with me when I eventually took a job at another school.

The concept of organizational culture, and its importance and application to leadership, is what Edgar Schein addresses in Organizational Culture and Leadership. In this book, Schein provides a thorough description of culture and its components, including categories and levels of culture, subcultures, internal and external culture determinants, and cultural assumptions. He then addresses the issue (and challenge) of managing culture change, and provides case studies to illustrate the process. Much of what he shares was helpful for me in framing my understanding of organizational culture, but what was most useful for my particular leadership and way of thinking was the explanation of the three levels of culture (artifacts, beliefs and values, and underlying assumptions), as well as the practical tools for changing and embedding culture. They were understandable, and the examples and case studies provided throughout showed what the concepts look like in practice.

From my own experience, I have learned the value of understanding history and culture, and this has become a core attribute of my leadership practice. Schein’s book is a great resource for understanding organizational culture, and so I believe it is a useful text for leaders. If you haven’t learned this lesson yet, I would urge you to become intentional about understanding and applying it.

Schein, Edgar H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th Ed. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Quotable (Jeff McMaster, on the importance of knowing culture)

“Before any leader can play an influential role in shaping, modifying, or changing a culture, he or she must first understand [that culture]. . . . Essentially, you must know your culture before you can lead it well.”

You Need to Know Your Culture

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.