The Impact of Leadership & Culture on Collective Decision-Making

Posted December 26th, 2018 in Culture & Leadership by Dr. William (Bill} DeMarco

Defining Leadership

There are literally hundreds of definitions of leadership. For this paper, we will use a definition inspired by Jacobs and Jaques in 1990: leadership is giving purpose to collective effort while causing willing effort to achieve that purpose. This definition requires that leaders have both a vision, which Jacobs and Jaques called “purpose”, as well as an ability to inspire others to follow. Leadership can be for either good or ill.  It does not call for a leader who solves all challenges; instead, it calls for a shared perspective (collective/group effort) where followers enroll in the vision of the leader to the point of committing their willing effort. This can be viewed as similar to Thomistic philosophy, where free will is placed in service of a cause perceived to be more noble than “self”.

The nature of “giving purpose to collective effort” is more a function of ideas than a function of time and place (frequently referred to as “locales of leadership”). It calls for a dialogue between individuals and societies. It has been thus since the ancient Greek Academy. What has changed over the millennia is the size of the population that makes up the cohorts of this dialogue. If we subscribe to the notion of the uniqueness of each human being, the challenges faced by the leader in “giving purpose to collective effort” exponentially changes with the increase in cohort size. In the business world, this is frequently referred to as “span of control”.  Increased levels of complexity partially drive this challenge.  While the fundamental participants -i.e. individuals and societies – have not changed much, the nature of the dialogue has radically changed mostly due to the increased multiplicity and complexity of ideas represented by the enhanced size of the cohorts involved. In the modern context, ideas and interactions migrate from local to global villages and back again at hitherto unknown speeds. This becomes a collective cross-cultural relation where comparative rhetoric is impossible because there are no static entities to compare. This is in alignment with the Daoism “one world” view of reality, where an underlying stable reality does not exist because reality is always changing. As if all of this was not enough complexity, the twenty-first century phenomenon known as “social media” has brought complexity to new levels.

We frequently view the impact of globalism on society as a relatively recent phenomenon. Leaders, however, have valued the importance and impact of globalism since ancient times. Herodotus, frequently referred to as the “Father of History”, wrote at length about the impact of events and ideas on enquiry. In his introduction to the History of the Persian Wars (c.440B.C.), he wrote: “I endeavor …to preserve from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and to prevent the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due mead of glory…also to put on record what were the grounds of their feud, relying on my eyes, my judgment and my talent for enquiry.” Globalism in the fifth century B.C. was mostly brought about by the medium of foot travel. His histories came about from his dialogues and discourses throughout Asia Minor, Egypt, Thrace, the Aegean islands, Babylon, and the Scythian Islands north of the Black Sea. Engaging in dialogue about what he saw and heard, and engaging in discourse about their relevance, he presented stories about leaders giving purpose to collective effort and causing willing effort to be expended to achieve that purpose.

Nearly a century after Herodotus, Plato’s Republic was publicly read and studied at the Acropolis in Athens, but not until he traveled to Egypt and Italy. This is less a story of the importance of Athens and the Acropolis, though important it was! It is more a story of the importance of ideas. Plato understood the importance of ideas in the fostering of a new social order; a social order, which causes as much discourse and dialectic today as it did more than two thousand years ago.

Almost two hundred years after Plato’s Republic was read in the Athenian Acropolis, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars was read in the Roman Forum. Again we have an example less about place than about ideas. Caesar viewed himself as the solution to what he describes as the weakening of the Roman Republic, sounding a bit like the current American political leadership scene. He seized on the theme of how Gaul threatened the Republic and he was the noble leader who could bring Rome back to its former glory.

In 2006, George Lakoff, writing about the battle for the American notion of freedom during the second George Bush administration, could have been describing ancient Greece or Rome when he wrote: “Ideas are not abstract things. They are components of action. They define ideals. They create norms of behavior. They characterize right and wrong, and accordingly change our understanding of the past and the present, our vision of the future and even the laws of the land. Ownership of the word means ownership of the idea that goes with the word, and with it, domination of the culture defined by the idea!” These words were a prescient call for meaningful reflections in Trumpian Times.

Herodotus, Plato, and Caesar were not writing about locales of place. All three understood the power of ideas. They were obsessed with “giving purpose to collective effort and inspiring willing effort to support that purpose”.

“Our World” Depends on our “Prism”

The Merriam Webster dictionary describes an “idea” as a “mental image or formulation of something seen or known or imagined”. It is this author’s contention that if the locales of leadership are more about ideas than place, then the foregrounding context for these locales of leadership are mostly about culture, for it is through culture’s prism that we see… we know… we imagine!

From the age of exploration in the West to the early twentieth century, discourses on the meaning of culture had more to do with the perceived differences between “native”, “aboriginal”, “barbarian”, or “primitive” societal behaviours and practices as compared to an ancient Greek rhetoric and Eurocentric assumptions of “being cultured”. Participants in this great quest for cultural meaning seemed to have been well intentioned, though bound by the respective prisms from which they viewed the opposite universe [more about this in Part Two].  Demonstrating this reality, while metaphorically speaking for leaders and members of nation-states, missionaries, explorers, and scholars of culture alike, U.S. President William McKinley (1897-1901) said the following as part of an 1898 newspaper interview, in answer to the question “why did the U.S. invade the Philippines” (during the Spanish American War): “…there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men, for whom Christ also died. ”. Well intentioned though President McKinley may have been, his “religious beliefs prism” as a devout Protestant did not allow him to recognize that Roman Catholics were Christians and that the “Filipinos” had been Roman Catholic for centuries!

McKinley’s comments are Kiplingesque in their recognition of the “White man’s burden”. They elevated the relationship of locales of leadership and their foregrounding context to nobility of purpose, in spite of the opaqueness of the prism in question. He failed to mention the importance of naval vessel refueling stations in Asian waters, most likely because it had little to do with nobility of purpose.

McKinley was certainly not alone! His comments were all part of culture as foregrounding context for an empire-building world; it was already famously described in 1869 by the English poet Matthew Arnold as contact with the best, which has been thought and said in the world. Arnold’s perception of the meaning of culture is an example of an “idea” as a “mental image or formulation of something seen or known or imagined”. The work/comments of Arnold, Kipling and McKinley all show leadership as a process of giving purpose to collective effort while inspiring willing effort to support that purpose.

Getting Past the “Clutter” to See the Culture

When we see “leadership in action”, it is all too easy to mistake the trees for the forest. It is very natural to mistake what is most obvious in the foreground for what is really going on because we see our universe through very complex cultural prisms. This is no less true of leaders at their moments of decision.

There are many examples of culture as foregrounding context. One such example has particular resonance in today’s lingering post 9-11 world. In 1898, William Sumner, a prominent and very popular anti-imperialist professor at Yale University, wrote: “The first principle of Mohammedanism is that we Christians are dogs and infidels, fit only to be enslaved or butchered by Moslems. It is a corollary that wherever Mohammedanism extends it carries, in the belief of its votaries, the highest blessings, and that the whole human race would be enormously elevated if Mohammedanism should supplant Christianity everywhere.” This seems to represent the current beliefs of the “votaries” of Osama bin Laden, ISIS, and Boko Haram as well.

Needless to say, Benazir Bhutto’s view of the principles of Islam (“Mohammedanism”), are quite different from such “votaries” because her prism allowed her to see the universe quite differently. Educated in arguably the finest universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, and ostensibly committed to lifetime learning (Senge, 1990). Benazir Bhutto, a devout Muslim and a child of Pakistan, was a woman uniquely positioned to see and appreciate both the foregrounding and backgrounding contexts of locales of leadership.

The prism through which we see all cultures is uniquely our own. We tend to use a prism which Chris Argyris would likely call a single loop –no need to test the “underlying assumptions” our outward view of the universe is based on; we know they are correct! On the other hand, we usually demand nothing short of a full double loop assessment of the observed culture: both the actions of others and our view of their underlying assumptions. (Argyris, 1977). While Argyris was describing learning in organizations, his model has wider application. All of us are bound by culture as a foregrounding context. To fully do justice to what we see when observing cultures, our respective prisms need to simultaneously be transparent looking out and mirrored looking in.

For all the opaqueness brought on by good intentions, the prisms of Arnold, Kipling, McKinley, and Sumner represent the former while Bhutto represents the latter. The study of culture is a lifetime learning experience. It is as Eric Hoffer described in 1963: “Learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves perfectly equipped to inherit a world that no longer exists. (Hoffer, 1963: 36)”.

Part Two (found here) will also contain references from this article.

Meaningful Reflections!

Dr. William (Bill) DeMarco


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