What Does Culture Say About Leadership?

“All education is directed toward prompt obedience to authority, stout endurance of hardship, and victory or death in battle…They always go without a shirt, receiving one garment for a year, and their bodies are unwashed…The boys steal whatever they can of their food, learning to make their raids on people who are asleep or careless. The penalty for getting caught is a beating and no food…so, through coping with want by their own initiative, they are compelled to be daring and unscrupulous…they are no less concerned over their music and songs, which stimulate a spirit of pride…”
From Plutarch’s Customs of the Spartans

Respected scholarship, both ancient and modern, provides a clear picture of Spartan culture. The surprising thing is that Spartan militarism was a cultural response, very different from that of Athens, to the threats that faced the then flowering ideas of freedom, justice, and democracy in Greek civilisation. Not only did Spartans seek to protect their unwalled villages from tyranny and the socially divisive temptations of personal wealth and luxury, but they also became champions of freedom on behalf of other poleis that appealed for Spartan protection. In spite of the contradictions of slavery and the status of the helots, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans died at Thermopylae fighting for freedom against tyranny.

The very nature of culture and community, and therefore leadership, is raised here for a contemporary world grappling with age-old human realities. Do the roots of the current crises of government in America and Europe go deeper than mere politics, reflecting cultural developments that have been bubbling under for decades? Is the real cause of business dysfunction the bewildering complex of erratic cultural predispositions that characterise the postmodern West?

Questions about culture are almost always questions about leadership. Inevitably, while culture obviously shapes leadership, it is also an essential task of leadership to shape culture, for better or worse. Which it will be depends on the critical factors of knowledge and virtue.

Given the distinctions made by scholars like Johann Gottfried Herder and Oscar Spengler, we must in passing note the differences between culture and civilisation. The word civilisation comes to us from the Latin word for city, and initially, that was what it referred to, distinguishing the people who lived in cities from the nomadic tribes with whom they were often in conflict. Life in a clan or a tribe is governed by the customs and conventions of one’s own kind, but in a city, the cosmopolitan mix of people requires a contractual obedience to formal laws, usually reflecting the mores of the dominant culture.

So civilisation is the establishment of socio-political and economic standards that enable harmonious community. Civilisations typically include different cultures e.g. Athens and Sparta in ancient Greek civilisation, Confucian and Buddhist culture in Chinese civilisation, French and German culture in European civilisation, and of course the many different cultures that contribute to the melting pot of American civilisation.

Culture, by contrast, is a deeper concept. Our focus here is the modern sociological definition of culture, which understands it as a way of life common to a particular community, grounded in ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that are expressed in its institutions, its literature, and its arts. This has become the sense in which most people today use the word culture. In fact, the word is now indispensable in describing the nature of community in nations, bureaucracies, civil and religious organisations, schools and universities, and commercial and professional enterprises, large and small.

This understanding of culture sees it a dynamic phenomenon underpinned by a definable worldview, that is, a metaphysical interpretation of the meaning of life that guides the ongoing development of social tradition. Even in the most progressive cultures, tradition is important, because the maintenance and transmission of the essential tenets of any culture are crucial to its on-going survival and flourishing.

What factors impact the formation of culture? Sociologists have long debated the obvious influences of environmental, genetic, and economic factors, and in a regressively positivist age the temptation to explain culture in terms of materialistic determinism is obviously strong. However, this is to ignore the nature of the source of culture itself – the human mind.

Intellect and free will give humans the creativity and the power of choice that ultimately decide the shape of any culture. How humans think about the world and their place in it is the crucial factor that produces the endlessly innovative array of cultural phenomena. This psychological factor includes not only the practical and theoretical responses of a community to environmental and economic needs, but also the complex interactions, or lack thereof, with other cultures.

At its most profound level, culture is something that must be pursued with vision and effort. It is in this sense that we speak of ‘cultivating young minds, or ‘cultivating loyalty to the Constitution’, or ‘cultivating a spirit of dissent’, or ‘cultivating a stronger work ethic in a business’. Inevitably, such goals and efforts entail making judgments about their worthiness, as well as what would contribute to their fulfillment and what would be inimical to it. And making judgments, whether practical or ethical, means deciding between right and wrong. This is why all cultures ultimately reflect a particular worldview or understanding of the meaning of life.

In their broadest senses, arts and crafts (including technology) and custom are the visible expressions of culture. Arts and crafts are the product of voluntary making; custom is the product of voluntary doing. Both are inspired by knowledge, understanding, and beliefs, which in turn arise from experience, rational reflection, and authority, be it that of a parent, a teacher, a manager, or some other trusted source of information and insight.

So all human beings, whether they do it right or get it wrong, make judgments on these things and then choose what they will believe and how they will conduct themselves. Even those who do not think for themselves, preferring to follow the judgments of others, in the final analysis, make a choice, blindly or timidly accepting subordination in some form or other. That choice, of course, will in some measure limit their fulfillment as human beings.

Of course, in this politically correct age of cultural relativism, much of the very necessary dialogue on culture is neutered by the obsession with ‘values’ and ‘tolerance’. Neither word has the precise semantic content required for constructive debate, and indeed, their deliberate vagueness aids and abets the manipulation of unwitting minds. This lies at the core of the modern misunderstanding of culture and, therefore, leadership.

‘Values’ is an economic term pressed into service to replace the philosophical concept of the good. The idea of individual choice in deciding what a thing is worth was more amenable to the modern mind, or at least its propagators, than the classical notion of objective goods. That is why now, for many people, there is no objective good, but only what they as individuals ‘value’ or choose as their own personal good. Similarly, cultures are thought to be based on ‘values’ rather than natural or customary goods.

So the word ‘values’ may refer to tastes, likes and dislikes, preferences, practices, habits, loyalties, beliefs, attitudes, sentiments or any personal proclivity one feels inclined to try and justify. And note that such justification does not even pretend to be rational, and in fact is almost always emotional, brooking no arguments. However, this reduces the meaning of culture to spur-of-the-moment, feel-good impulses. No wonder there is so little genuine understanding of the concept of culture

Cultural ‘values’ in business, for example, are appropriate in regard to such things as dress, work hours, volumes and margins, degrees of customer service, and so on. But in any properly humane organisation, how could the essential requirements for mutually rewarding relationships be a matter of personal or corporate choice? When it comes to human relationships, if we choose to disdain integrity, honesty, self-control, justice, empathy, compassion, or any other human virtue, then we choose to undermine and destroy those relationships. What corporate mission would ever state openly the intention to be lying, thieving rats, even if that were indeed what management had in mind? And would anyone ever be ‘tolerant’ of such declared ‘values’?



Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Brilliant article, Andre! Very perceptive. Where did we go off track, and in such a big way? You speak about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. My father lectured my brother and me on the perils of being coarse and destructive (we weren’t, it was just a warning!). It seems easy to blame it on the media, yet on the whole, they respond to demand, but they exacerbated a downward spiral. Is there anything that we can do to turn it around?

  2. I love how you ended the article with a 1992 quote from “Carl Bernstein”. Carl is definitely a visionary. What he described is applicable to a lot of the sub-cultures out there including the social media cultures.

    I wonder what are his thoughts are on the 2016 US presidential election.