A Leader’s Toolbox: Organizations as Cultures

Back to our reading of Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal offer an insightful look into two frameworks that are easily overlooked in organizations today–the “political” and “symbolic” frames. Both are deeply rooted in the human condition and experience. These two frames are products of their environments. They shape how individuals and companies interact and make meaning within the segments in which they exist.

A principal idea from these two frameworks is that organizations both have and at the same time are cultures. Organizations may be compared to living colonies, forming their own sense of order, value and purpose. Bolman and Deal argue that culture is both a product and a process. As a product, it embodies wisdom accumulated from experience. As a process, it is renewed and re-created as newcomers learn the old ways and eventually become teachers themselves. An organization’s culture as both product and process encapsulates the double helix of its own genetic identity. It operates through the basis of how it orders its inner and outer politics and core competencies.

For me, the perspective of organizations as cultures is most important because it informs how individuals may navigate its beliefs, values and customs. A cultural understanding of an organization offers insights into how it is structured, how people relate in interpersonal and group dynamics, and how it operates as a political arena with issues of power, conflict and coalition. In many ways, a cultural understanding is a recollection of the stories that shape individuals and organizations. Organizations seek a space in their segment by offering an alter narrative based on a declared bedrock value. This can be a product or service that sets a particular company apart from the rest.

The church is no different to this reality. It is an organization that tells the story of God as a different narrative, often as a counter-weight to other dominant philosophical frameworks. People’s stories act as testimonies that shape ecclesiastical cultures. In this process, an individual’s story merges with God’s story, forming a shared story of future hope. The aforementioned double helix definition of corporate culture identity has very practical implications in my own life as a Christian leader. For about a decade I lived and worked in Greece, where 98% of the population professes Greek Orthodoxy. The community I pastored is a non-denominational evangelical church. Looking at culture as a double helix product and process, this dialectic reality produces an interesting synthesis.

Orthodoxy is the product of two millennia of Christian beliefs and traditions. The word itself means “of the right belief.” Consequently, within Orthodoxy there is no room for process or innovation. In one hand, you have the cultural identity that is the embodiment of wisdom accumulated from experience. On the other hand, you have a “contemporary” evangelical church with charismatic tendencies. This very definition shows that the community is characterized by a continuous process of renewal and adaptation. Whereas the first contextualizes to tradition, the latter contextualizes to innovation and forward thinking. Unfortunately, these realities existed dialectically within the Greek context, never getting to a point of synthesis.

Culture is a web of meaning that is both a product and a process. The contemporary church movement can be so future-minded that we forget to live from memory. We often dismiss the need for a sense of place, history and tradition. My challenge became how to create a synthesis between product and process. It is about how to incorporate the richness of Orthodox heritage with innovative and flexible ways of being a church that ministers to the human condition.

Orthodoxy is rich is metaphors, iconography, sights, smells and other ways of conveying meaning. A simple way to create a synthesis between product and process is to draw from the symbolic frame. So within my evangelical fellowship I started telling the stories of Orthodox saints like Cyril and Methodius. These two brothers were Orthodox missionaries in the ninth century whose influence spread throughout the Slavic and Russian world. They were great thinkers and innovators. Cyril is credited with having invented the Cyrillic Alphabet in order to communicate the Gospel in the Eastern European continent. The Cyrillic Alphabet is the basis of many languages throughout Eastern Europe today. By recalling some of these heroes, an intertwining synthesis was achieved between the product of Orthodoxy and the process of contemporary evangelicalism, creating a new cultural identity of tradition and innovation.

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