Creating Culture One Student at a Time

One of the hot buzzwords in a lot of different arenas today is culture.

We want to build cultures in our schools so they can run smoothly and make sure everyone is working in the same direction. Building a culture is about getting the stakeholders to buy into the vision, mission, and values of the group.

But culture is actually quite a complex phenomenon. If we are not careful as classroom leaders, the drive to build culture can cause us to lose sight of something very important.

The Task of Building Culture

In this third part of our series on leadership lessons from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, we want to make sure we recognize that culture is built individually rather than in one fell swoop. Author Steven Sample said leaders don’t actually run the organizations to which they belong. Instead, their task is to lead individuals who make up the group and whose individual efforts and behaviors collectively create the substance of the organization.

This is like two men who lived next door to each other and were getting ready to pass out candy on Halloween. The first man bought a large amount of candy and set it out in a bowl on his porch with a note which said, “Help yourself.” Meanwhile, he sat in his house watching television. The second man also bought a large amount of candy, but he sat on his porch greeting each trick-or-treater and engaging in short, but lively, conversations. He even allowed the older kids to come around multiple times and each time he gave them candy. His only stipulation was that they had to tell him a new joke or scary story each time they came.

Both men took care of the same external needs of the trick-or-treaters, but the second man created an experience which each youngster felt a part of because of the individualized attention they received.

The Hard Part

As I reflect on my own leadership journey, the times where I have not been at my best were when I failed in my task of leading the individual members of the group.

The hard part is not creating a school mission statement or a classroom motto. That’s easy.

The difficulty is not speaking over the entire group in broad generalizations. Anyone can do that.

The nitty gritty work is giving personalized attention to each individual member and leading them by serving their needs. In turn, individuals will reciprocate this type of leadership and serve the needs of their fellow team members.

As Jon Gordon stated, “Leaders define culture from the top-down. But culture is brought to life from the bottom-up.” This is because we all are on a quest to reach our fullest potential. Psychologist Carl Jung called this process individuation. If we blindly mold ourselves into the culture of our group without understanding our role in how the group can help us reach our full potential, then eventually there will be conflict. Reaching our full potential pushes us to serve others, but it requires us to utilize the personal gifts and abilities we have inside.

The Paradox of Culture

It is true that, in great cultures, individuals must make sacrifices in order to do what is best for the group. But the paradox of culture is that individual buy-in and sacrifice flourishes when individuals feel valued, recognized, and appreciated for their unique gifts and abilities.

As classroom leaders, let’s seize the opportunities to lead the individuals in our classes and create a culture of teaching for impact one student at a time.

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