Will Salyards
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Will Salyards, PhD Blog

Life, Career, Leadership

Culture: The Third Rail of Leadership

If you lead from a foundation of values shared by your members, if you emphasize team building, if you involve your group when making decisions, if you support those who work with you and aren’t status or class-conscious or independent and individualistic then it’s likely you could lead in any social or organizational culture. Yes, it’s a little more complicated than that but the good news is that good leadership is universally recognized and desired. Just as individuals hold ideas about what leadership is and compare them against those who say they are leaders, cultures do too. That is, the expectations, permissions, and status given leaders results from cultural forces; these form expectations of what a leader is and does.

Negatively, it means that people will resist leadership if it’s seen to violate their commonly shared understandings. Positively, it means that roles are defined and stipulate what leaders can and may do in their work as well as what may be assumed about their place.

For instance, in some societies as well as in some organizations it would not be considered unusual for a leader to assume that his/her place was in command. Yet where community is valued over the individual this would be an offense to the value of communal consensus building.

Culture is, in the words of another, the “software of our minds” programmed through a common language, belief system, ethnic heritage, and history. It supplies the “fit” that assures us we belong and highlights why others don’t. Culture is complex in its composition yet simple in its expression making what those within know instinctively the work of years for those without.

We live by it and protect it without thought to the identity it creates among us simply accepting it as normal. And normal it is but lest we be lulled into thinking that culture is quantifiable it’s worth bearing in mind that no consensus exists as to its definition.

In large strokes culture refers to the rules in use by human collectives to distinguish themselves from each other. For the leader who desires to lead well and finish well learning rather than assuming the nuances of a culture, be it national, regional, or organizational, is the first step to fulfilling service.

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