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.
ANDRE VAN HEERDEN 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. Contact – Facebook – Google+ – LinkedIn – Twitter
Photo Credit – geralt