Part One: The Importance of Culture on Leadership Decision-making

Posted November 30th, 2021 in Culture, Personal Values by Dr. William (Bill} DeMarco

 

By

 

Dr. William (Bill) DeMarco, Ph.D.

 

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 a process of giving purpose to collective effort and causing willing effort to be expended to achieve that purpose.   This definition requires that leaders have both a vision, which Jacobs and Jaques call “purpose”, as well as an ability to inspire others to follow. They do not call for a leader who solves all challenges; instead, they call for a shared perspective (collective 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 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”).  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.  Increased levels of complexity partially drive this.  While the fundamental participants   -i.e. individuals and societies – have not changed, 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 causing willing effort to be expended to achieve 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 behaviors 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.

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” 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 (Rudyard) 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 refuelling 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 and causing willing effort to be expended to achieve 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 outside looking inward, while Bhutto represents the inside looking outward.  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)”.

To truly understand culture, we cannot be exclusively trapped by our prism.  We must know what we do not know and become lifetime learners.  This has special worldwide resonance today where racial prisms are so dominant.  This is truly a learning opportunity that the world has not experienced in centuries.

 

[Part Two: mid-January, 2019]

 

 

The Impact of Culture on Leadership Decision-making (undocumented version)*

Posted November 24th, 2021 in Culture, Leadership by Dr. William (Bill} DeMarco

For Part I of this article, Click here.

By Dr. William (Bill) DeMarco, Ph.D.

Defining Culture

Leadership is mostly about ideas.  “Culture”, like “leadership”, is a term of many guises.  Not only does the word “culture” mean different things to different people; it is also often simplistically used as a catchall term for a complex collection of frequently changing, yet defining elements of a society.

A 1937 Yale University study identified seventy-nine major divisions and 637 subdivisions of cultural background information.  This process and work are still used today.  A separate 1952 Harvard University study listed 160 definitions of culture.  By 1952, anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic had already been studying culture for nearly a century.

Since the early twentieth century, many culture scholars have specialized their areas of enquiry on the role of religious practices, myths, language patterns, symbols, and gender/sexuality on culture. A tipping point occurred when scholars attempted to understand a culture from the inside looking out. In more recent times, the ethnographic studies placed emphasis on the importance of symbols to culture.

 

Different research approaches

In 1967, the terms “emic” and “etic” were coined, the former referring to the inside out and the latter referring to the outside-in perspectives. For decades, researchers have focused on these two approaches as being mutually exclusive. In actuality, both the emic and etic perspectives have equally long pedigrees in the social sciences.  “The emic or inside perspective follows in the tradition of psychological studies of folk beliefs and in cultural anthropologists’ striving to understand culture from the ‘native point of view’.  The etic or outside perspective follows in the tradition of behaviorist psychology and anthropological approaches that link cultural practices to external, antecedent factors, such as economic or ecological conditions, that may not have much significance to cultural insiders.

The question of who got it right is truly irrelevant here.  What is relevant is the recognition that all of us “see”, “know” and “imagine” based on the prisms through which we view the universe.  All too often, there is a tendency for culture scholars who use one or the other method to dismiss the alternate approach as lacking in some methodological or conceptual rigor.  Debates over qualitative data v. quantitative techniques are the wrong discussion.  Given culture’s complexity, we need both.

Elements of both “emic” and “etic” approaches became part of the research protocols of the emerging academic discipline of “sociology” as early as the 1920’s. This led to research of the physical environment a society inhabited as a major factor in shaping human behavior.  This led to some culture scholars focusing their research on the culture of emigration/immigration, which  frequently used both emic and etic approaches as well. This led to research on the enduring nature of centuries old cultural patterns within physical locales, where change occurred but at a very slow pac

 

A WORKING DEFINITION OF CULTURE

I define culture as the sum of the history, folklore, and values that, taken together, make up the unique identity of a society at a given place and point in time (Image 1).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture’s Complexities

The study of culture is not an either/or paradigm; it is rather a sum game!  Researchers in the field of culture study have long argued about the merits of various approaches to research on the topic.  The reality is all approaches, and all insights are required today if the complexities

of new global realities are to be understood, and mutually beneficial solutions are to be found in times of crisis/need.   Without a common, conceptual framework about the meaning of culture, it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to simultaneously address the issue of how to build trust networks within a society, as well as between the defence, diplomacy, development and commerce communities within fractured states when unrest occurs, irrespective of whether the unrest is man-made or of natural causes.

Culture’s Multi-dimensionality

All cultures are made up of individuals and societies with shared history, folklore and values.  Cultures are living organisms where the dynamic interplay of life impacts on and is impacted by it.  The centuries old interplay between human hunter-gatherer existence, and the relatively “recent invention” of agriculture is a good example of culture as a living organism.

We are also part of a variety of cultures, each with its own history, values and folklore. Given this, it is no overstatement to say cultures are complex and constantly in a state of change. The kind of change we are talking about is most often imperceptible, but it is always there because yesterday’s realities have become part of today’s history…yesterday’s experiences are part of today’s folklore…and the quality of yesterday’s decisions have become today’s updated value system.

It is important for us to first recognize that we are part of many cultures.  The first and most important is our primary culture: the “culture of self” that defines our uniqueness.  We are also part of many different societies, each with its own culture.  We have our ethnic culture, family culture, religious culture, community culture, work culture, racial culture, etc. etc.  Some play a more prominent role than others.  For all their multiplicity and complexity, they generally share certain elements in common.  Our ability to build true trust networks is driven by our ability to find, understand, value and utilize these cultural commonalities.

HISTORY

 

Image 2 defines the history components of the culture definition.  Like other components of the model, it stresses the individual and collective uniqueness of the members of the culture. It also recognizes that both internal and external persons, events and institutions impact the society’s unique identity over a period of time.  Of particular interest here is the “Institutions” component.  Its definition has broad application, including the inclusion of the systems, structures, and formal/informal working relationships of governmental, quasi-governmental, social service, and religious agencies/institutions. Societies worldwide are currently on the cusp of discovering the importance of institutional cultures during the current (2021) significant changes of remote “everything”, bringing about a different kind of socialization.   However, their symbols belong under “Folklore” and their value system belongs under “Values”.

 

Image 2. History component of DeMarco Culture Model

HISTORY The people, events and institutions that collectively impact a society’s unique identity.
People Individuals, both inside and outside the society, who impact its direction and values over a period of time.
Events Incidents both inside and outside a society that impact its direction and values over time.
Institutions Systems, structures, and formal/informal relationships that impact a society’s direction and values over time.

 

FOLKLORE

The Folklore component is where a culture’s stories live.  Stories have been an integral part of the human experience since the beginning of time.  Stories inspire, inform, and connect participants to what the society stands for.  They are rich cultural anthologies of high value as well as entertainment. They link the listener/observer to messages from the past, handed down from one generation to the next. We see this in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, as well as the sacred scriptures of the other religious traditions.  Some of these stories are symbols in the form of artistic expressions of all sorts.  In societies like the Maori in New Zealand, they even tell the creation story, providing not just an ancestral linkage but also a link to the divine. The great educator and lifetime student of the history of civilization.

All cultures have stories about individuals whose exploits are bigger than life.  They were frequently mythic or epic in nature. Cultures frequently have difficulty recognizing the demarcation line between truth and fiction.  These stories have significance to a culture not because they are historically accurate but rather because they signify how its people feel and think about individuals and events, irrespective of their origin.

One of the great challenges for western professionals trained in scientific methods of any and all sorts is to recognize the power of cultural relevance. The components of Folklore as describe in Image 3 can be of great help with this.

 

Image 3.  Folklore component of DeMarco Culture Model

FOLKLORE The body of knowledge/practice concerning what the society stands for, has been handed down from one generation to the next in oral/written traditions, and lives in the society’s heroes, myths, and symbols.
Heroes Individuals whose exploits are viewed as outstanding examples of what the society values most.
Myths Stories about people, events, or institutions, loosely based on reality, commonly given as examples of what the society values most or least
Symbols Visual, spoken, artistic, religious, and culinary manifestations that reflect a society’s essence.

VALUES

Values are the unique blend of perceived beliefs, needs and attitudes that live in the behavior of most members of a society.  Most culture models include values as integral to the definition.  What is unique here are the three subcategories.  Values in this model have everything to do with perception.  Cultures see their reality through their own hierarchy of truth.  That hierarchy has three levels of reality:  (1) beliefs, which, for the most part, are immutable; (2) biases (called attitudes here) which have significant influence on individual/group behaviour; and (3) needs, which are requirements for survival/success.  In fractured states or natural disaster zones, peace making and trust building can only be achieved if the fundamental needs of a culture are first addressed.  An example would be a doomed initiative of creating a working civil society in an environment with inadequate potable water, food and shelter from the elements.  Beyond this, some cultures have ceremonial, religious, or symbolic needs which are so deep seated their absence would totally undermine any meaningful discourse concerning “giving purpose to collective effort and causing willing effort to be expended to achieve that purpose. “

The study of values should include the study of the history and folklore of the culture in question. The history and folklore of a culture are the outward manifestation of the inner value system. For example, if we want to know more about the beliefs of a society, look at the historical and mythological personages they lionize.  These “beliefs in action” can reveal a “say-do gap”, which is a litmus test that differentiates beliefs from attitudes. Far too many change agents make the mistake of expecting to make changes in a cultural belief system in a relatively short period of time.  Short of a truly transformational or life-altering event, beliefs are immutable.  Attitudes, on the other hand, are not so deep seated and may be more open to change.

Each society/culture’s values are truly unique because individuals and groups are unique. Having said this, it is important to keep in mind that the uniqueness of individuals and societies does not lie in the uniqueness of their parts; we share far more in common than not.  The uniqueness lies in the totality and interoperability of the history, folklore, and values, which, taken together, make up the unique identity of a society at a given place and point in time!  The challenge is to find the common ground where discourse between cultures can contribute to trust building.

 

Image 4.  Values component of DeMarco Culture Model

 

VALUES The unique blend of perceived beliefs, needs and attitudes that live in the behaviour of most members of the society.
Beliefs Ideas viewed as being true by most members of the society.
Needs Conditions or situations perceived by most members of the society as being required for survival/success.
Attitudes Predispositions of most members of a society that an idea has special merit.
 

 

CONCLUSION

Leadership is more about ideas than place. Place is all about culture. Cultures are living organisms where the dynamic interplay of life impacts on and is impacted by it.  We are also part of a variety of cultures, each with its own history, values and folklore. Given this, it is no overstatement to say cultures are complex and constantly in a state of change. The kind of change we are talking about is most often imperceptible, but it is always there because yesterday’s realities have become part of today’s history…yesterday’s experiences are part of today’s folklore…and the quality of yesterday’s decisions have become today’s updated value system.

Individual and societal cultures see the world through prisms, which ideally are transparent looking out, and mirrored looking in. All cultures suffer from some form of opaqueness when we look through our prisms.  Culture is the sum of the history, folklore, and values that, taken together, make up the unique identity of a society at a given place and point in time.

The relatively new field of organizational culture can be particularly helpful in this activity because it comes out of the social science academic traditions; it attempts to find patterns of shared values to build trust relationship within rapidly changing and fast paced organizations.   The study of organizational culture focuses on observed behaviours (language, customs, and traditions), shared vision and shared knowledge, metaphors and symbols, group norms and embedded skills.

All of these give purpose to collective effort and cause willing effort to be expended to achieve that purpose.  Within organizational contexts, understanding the particulars of the culture becomes key to unlocking dialogue about what the company truly stands for and the rules of the road concerning what is necessary to operationalize collective effort. (DeMarco, 1984).  These are core elements of the Jacobs and Jaques definition of leadership

The study of culture in its many guises has been a lifetime professional commitment of this author.  Work is already under way to create a field tool, which will link elements of the DeMarco Culture Model with a trust building scale.  This will be a “community engagement tool” which will help leaders “give purpose to collective effort and cause willing effort to be expended to achieve that purpose.”  This has relevance because there is a new emergent global culture that calls for new insights, new thinking, and a new ethos.  This “community engagement tool” will be the basis for Part Three of this series, to be published in early 2022.

The study of culture is time consuming and challenging.  It is also one of society’s best hopes for finding common ground to engage in meaningful dialogue within societies in crisis.  It is hoped that the ideas expressed in these pages will enhance trust building; this is the fundamental challenge of today’s multi-fractured world.

 

*For the “documented version” of this same article, schroll down on this Blog page.

 

Meaningful Reflections!

An Allegory of a “Once Great Country” in Decline

Posted November 12th, 2021 in Culture by Dr. William (Bill} DeMarco

An Allegory of a “Once Great Country” in Decline

By Dr.William DeMarco, Ph.D.

 

…With heartfelt Apologies to those who still do not adhere to

                   Any/Most/Many of these statements:

 

There is a once-inspiring country where the vast majority of its current                                            population acts and votes as if it is “OK” for:

  • Millions of its children to go to bed hungry.
  • Millions of its citizens to live on the streets.
  • The cost of food for the family table to be beyond the reach of millions.
  • Most of its citizens not to be able to afford health care of any sort.
  • Most of its population not to be able to afford higher education at all or without going into “unreasonable debt*.
  • Many of its institutions of higher learning to rely on foreign student tuitions to balance their books, thus exporting future national prosperity and competitiveness.
  • It consistently tries to disenfranchise a third to half of its population.
  • To have the highest firearm-related murder rate in the world.
  • Its infant mortality rate to rank 25th of 37 OECD** nations.
  • Its literacy rate to rank among third world countries***.
  • Its life expectancy to be lower than the 37 OECD** nation average.

…vast majority of its current population

Acts & Votes as if it is “OK” for: Continue Reading »