The United States of America is many things; it’s a nation, society, brand, and culture. Culture fuels the power to leverage core ideals into a compelling national identity, sets the stage for social order, and shapes the attributes of what could be called “Brand America.” But power comes with vulnerability. The rule of social failure holds that a culture will eventually succumb to threats to its existence unless heroic efforts are made to protect it. Through more than two hundred years of unrelenting threats and more than a few incompetent leaders, American culture has evolved and thrived. It has been saved by responsible leadership and courageous citizens dedicated to blocking the process of decay by constantly renewing the vitality, relevance, and resonance of American culture.
As it is with many cultures, the beliefs of its founders are its anchor. For Americans, this anchor is captured by the American Creed, initially formulated by Thomas Jefferson and elaborated by many others. The American Creed has come down through the years as a bright light that draws people to it. Its elements are: The English language; religious commitment and the freedom to worship; English concepts of law, leader responsibility to protect society, and individual rights; the Protestant values of individualism; work ethic; and the belief that humans have the duty to create a heaven on earth.
What these ideals have in common with the ideals of any other culture is that they are subjective and, therefore, vulnerable to interpretation – and misuse. Early on, the founding fathers recognized this weakness and sought to minimize it by expressing their beliefs in a “story” of the Nation: The Constitution and Bill of Rights. By creating this vision of what the United States could be, they sought to voice the viability, relevance, and resonance of American culture and to force its ongoing affirmation through the three competing branches of government – Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.
Their purpose was to reduce the vulnerability of the core beliefs to the whimsy of power. They did it by deepening their meaning by translating them from mere bullet points – liberty, equality, law, rights, etc. – into a cohesive and memorable story of freedom we know as The Constitution and Bill of Rights. In a real sense, the founding fathers anticipated three questions important to future Americans:
- “Who are we?”
- “Where did we come from?”
- “Why should I want to be part of your enterprise?”
Millions of people have identified with the answers to these questions and the system of beliefs that are their source; leading to the United States we know today. Four simple ideals, expressed less than eloquently in The Constitution and Bill of Rights, gave birth to what is arguably the greatest nation ever. It is not a stretch to say that the founders’ example sets a high bar for any leader. They are role models for creating a compelling vision and addressing the most important challenge of leadership: How to build a vital, relevant, and resonant culture – one that people will want to have as part of their life.
There are 527 words in the prior paragraphs of this blog. They describe an enterprise that has thrived and occasionally struggled, but always survived. Can you describe the essence of your company’s culture in 527 words or less and in a way that clearly communicates the “what, how, and why” of its success? Do you have a way to put yourself and your leadership team on the path to understanding and building a culture that is vital, relevant, and resonant? Do you think about culture as “The way we do things around here” or as a precise roadmap to success? Your answers to these questions determine what you do about your culture and whether your actions will be effective.
What is Culture?
Where there is one person, there is a personality; but where there is more than one, there is a culture. Cultures form as naturally as night follows day whenever people come together to accomplish something. Thus, a leader’s choice is not whether there will be a culture, but whether the culture will support the enterprise’s success. Supporting the success of an enterprise and its stakeholders is the sole purpose of a culture. Ensuring that it is a vital, relevant, and resonant culture is the primary responsibility of its leader. Given this most critical purpose, it’s a very good thing that there is no mystery to what culture is, how to build one, and how to protect it from erosion. This process of cultural husbandry starts with an unambiguous definition of the object of our affections:
Culture is the system of shared values, beliefs, and experiences that govern the thinking and behavior of a group and its members.
Shared is the operational word in this definition of culture as differences in beliefs not only create differences within a culture, it creates a different culture! This is particularly true of beliefs about how success is to be achieved. It is these differences that you see in almost all political arguments – including the ones in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. If you strip away the political and personal posturing of people running for or trying to keep political office, belief in the ideals of the American Creed and how they propose to protect them should be central to their campaigns. Unfortunately, we seem to be in a time where the candidates often forget that they are not in a contest of personality and one-upmanship, but debating what it means to be a successful America and how that success is best achieved. Everything else is window-dressing. The founders meant for there to be ongoing debate about American success and how it is to be achieved, as argument breeds passion and passion (can) breed a vital, relevant, and resonant culture. This argument about what we achieve and how we achieve it should be at the top of every leadership team’s agenda, whether they are leading a country or another form of enterprise.