How does a leader shape a culture? Is this even possible? Doesn’t culture just happen as a result of the individual attitudes and activities that each person brings into the community?
My strong observation and premise is that leaders can—and do—shape culture. I say that from my experience in various organizations over the years, as well as from the Scriptures. For instance, Joshua’s example of unswerving faith moved the people to stand with him on the day he issued his “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” challenge—and they maintained that “culture” for a long time after Joshua died (Joshua 24:15, 31).
Shaping culture may be one of the most essential responsibilities of leadership. If we are not intentional about it, the shaping will still happen by default—for better or worse.
Paul is clear in Romans 12:3 that none of us should think of ourselves as more important than we ought. However, as people created in God’s image, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and invited to partner with God in his work in the world, we also should not underplay the impact we can have. The call to leading is a call to thoughtful action.
Here are the characteristics most important to me as I consider what it takes to be a good steward of culture.
One of the first prerequisites for leadership is self-awareness. If we do not know ourselves, in all our giftedness and brokenness, we constantly will battle with a disparity between our motivations and the results of our behaviors. We will not understand why it is that when we aim to do good things, the results often are not what we intended.
Self-awareness can be thought of as an assessment of our own internal culture with all its elements of temperament, experience, physical and personality attributes, desires, ambitions, relational strengths and deficiencies, persistent struggles and temptations. It all matters. And it all comes into play, one way or another, as we lead. The promise of God is that we who are followers of Jesus are in the process of
“being transformed into his likeness”
(2 Corinthians 3:18). And who we are today has an impact on the people and processes of life around us. The cultures we are in will pick up the flavor of our lives. So it is a good thing to know what some of those flavors are.
This is a priority. A leader cannot take an organization beyond where he or she has gone—or at least is intending to go. “Do as I say, not as I do” is only a nice slogan that protects our sense of integrity in the midst of the awareness that we too frequently fail. Leaders who are not growing in Christlike character will never be able to generate organizations that are. Our words must match our actions. So every leader must give priority to personal growth.
Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath, in their book The Ascent of a Leader, rightly make the distinction between growing in our capacity for leadership and growing in our character as leaders. Leaders who are growing in character are best able to shape a culture that also exhibits a positive character.
For me this means, among other things, that I need a small group of friends who will help me be completely myself with God and others.
This characteristic scarcely needs explanation. No organizational community will flourish without someone attending to the members with deep love—the kind of love that longs for God’s very best for others. Love is a gift. Love is a grace. Love is a commitment. Love is embedded in the biblical descriptions of leaders who tend, nourish, care for, feed, guide, protect, and call each member of the flock by name. Note, for instance, how Paul’s letter to the church at Rome ends with a list of fond greetings and thanks to specific Christians there (Romans 16:1-16).
Leaders who love understand that people are always more important than programs, and that a mission will only be accomplished by people who experience the biblical pattern we might define as “blessed to be a blessing.” This is seen in Abram’s call in Genesis 12:1-3, when God told him: “I will bless you . . . and you will be a blessing.”
A Servant Spirit
A key component in a fruitful leader’s “way of being” is a servant’s spirit. Leaders always have power. Some people view power as inherently evil. Power, however, is simply the realization of being given agency by God in the world. The question, then, is how that power is used. Jesus, who was the most powerful person who ever lived, always used his power in service to others. Paul says it this way:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8).
That is a challenging command to those of us in leadership who can be tempted to use position and authority to serve ourselves rather than serve the organization’s mission and its people. Cultivating a servant’s spirit within an organization is a key to building trust and ultimately shaping culture.
Integrity of Behavior
Max De Pree, in Leadership Jazz, says, “At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice and one’s touch” (p. 3). His point is that a leader’s behavior within a community must always bring together the content and tone of our words with our actions. It is what I imagine is contained in those words about David’s tending and guiding the people with skillful hands. Or in Isaiah 40:11, which describes the sovereign and powerful God’s actions: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Change is difficult under the best of circumstances. Being a change agent requires patience, persistence, and focus. However, even the best strategy will not be fruitful if the community does not trust its shepherd. The example of the Good Shepherd, the model of the servant Lord—particularly as contrasted with the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel 34:1-10—should provide strong instruction for those who want to bring positive nourishment and change to a culture.
The shepherd who does not tend, feed, and bind up wounds but, rather, uses people and power badly, will never leave an organization better than he found it. Sadly, there are times when (as with ancient Israel) God himself must rescue a community that has been preyed upon by a leader.
Caring for culture is always creative work. Therefore, imagination, or what some would call vision, becomes an important asset. Leaders need to be able to see the possibilities. They need to envision the life of the community in terms of what it might look like if the will of God were fully realized on earth as it is in Heaven. They need to listen to the imaginative dreams of those throughout the organization too, because God’s ideas often surface from a multitude of sources.
Patience and Persistence
Patience and persistence need to be tucked in as well, because the bottom line is that culture generally changes very slowly. So much of culture is rooted in the very DNA of an organization’s life and history. It takes careful, consistent attention over time for significant change to occur.
Leadership is never for the faint of heart. There are always difficult decisions to make and actions to take. Leaders are responsible and have to live with and be accountable for their actions. Leadership can be very costly. Christian leaders are always called to follow in the way of Jesus, who courageously did his Father’s will even when it cost him the praise of some of his followers, the respect of the watching world, and ultimately his life. Christ-centered leaders play life to an audience of one—and that takes courage.
Steve Hayner serves as president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.