In some respects, culture is the most difficult or ambiguous of the institutional qualities or elements that we might discuss or think about or assess. It seems more nebulous to us; it may appear more difficult to define and describe . . .and then to know how we can determine if the culture is one that is appropriate for this organization and its mission and purpose.
We do not need to speak in generic terms about culture. We know that the culture of a community association will be different from the corner grocer . . . from the local pub or an elementary school. We know that there will be a rather different feel between a school of business and the school of fine arts within a university or, still at the university, between the world of the humanities world and that strange building over there where the engineering students congregate. Or between the Anglican cathedral . . and a suburban Catholic parish, between a Baptist church and a Pentecostal church made up primarily of first generation Latin American immigrants.
But there are some working principles that can still inform the way that we think about culture and the ways in which we cultivate not only cultural literacy but also the capacity to cultivate a healthy institutional culture.
First, culture needs to fit; it needs to be appropriate to this institution in this location and in this time. It is a pseudo culture when a small private university in Alberta, for example, tries to replicate Oxbridge. There will be continuities; there is a culture that is appropriate for a university. But two universities can look and feel very different. There is a culture appropriate to a pub, but two pubs can feel and look very different. Most of all, culture needs to fit in this sense: it fosters institutional mission.
Second, I am not sure how to phrase this, but a healthy culture is one where, quite simply, we like being part of this place . . .we believe in the mission, we like the people we work with . . .we can even speak of joy and delight in being part of this organization. This does not mean silliness of course; but it does mean there is a lightness, a humour, a positive disposition such that we look forward to going to work in the morning because we believe in what we are doing and enjoy working with these people towards this common goal.
Third, the capacity to name reality without despair. Sometimes, our circumstances are very challenging – especially when we are facing a threat of some kind to our organizations. Sometimes there are situations that can be quite sobering. And the genius of an effective organizational culture is one where reality can be named; we live not by sentimentality or a false optimism, not with illusions about our reality but the capacity to name it.
But fourth, and quickly: culture is about realism but specifically a hopeful realism. It is the capacity to name reality not with cynicism or despair, but with a resilient hope. This is particularly a challenge in higher education where cynicism is almost viewed to be a core value and that if you are not cynical you are naïve. To the contrary, we will name reality but we will not lose hope . . .we will keep alert to the possibilities for positive change and growth, always attentive to a silver lining . . . we will mourn loss but not let it crush us. And in this regard there is no avoiding the power of rhetoric. Few could do this as effectively as Martin Luther King Jr and more recently Barack Obama . . . they knew how to speak in way that was neither maudlin or despairing . . . and for all of us, whether as teachers or as administrators, we always need to live in this zone: where and in what ways might we be called upon to be a source of hope, encouragement so that we foster the capacity of our organizations to foster a culture of courage.
Next week, I will speak to another indicator of a healthy institutional culture: the capacity to adapt.