anthropology of leadership

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Leadership
The Anthropology of Leadership: Culture
and Corporate Leadership in the American
South
Andrew M. Jones, University of Alabama – Birmingham, USA
Abstract This article attempts to make sense of some of the unique cultural qualities of the American South as they manifest themselves in the leadership dynamics of
three Southern firms. Two private, family-owned and managed firms, and one public
(S&P 500) bank are examined in their relationship with the larger cultural structures
of the American South. A combination of ethnographic and documentary research is
used to articulate a ‘cultural theory of leadership’, which is premised on the idea
that the leaders of these firms derive their leadership legitimacy and power from
being both ‘local’ and ‘global’ at the same time. It is suggested here that leadership
capital is drawn more from the elements of the region’s culture – religion, social
capital, gender and class identity and so on – than it is from individual personality
or firm history.
Keywords anthropology; cultural identity; ethnography; social capital; structural
theory
Introduction
It would be an understatement to say that the field of management does not need yet
another theory or model of leadership. The seemingly endless proliferation of books
on leadership has made it one of the most (over)analyzed and saturated areas of
research within management and organization studies. Established management
scholars have begun to express their frustration, even exhaustion, at the sheer volume
of work committed to the study of leadership (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Alvesson &
Sveningsson, 2003a; Grint, 1997, 2000; Kets de Vries, 1997). However, the field of
leadership studies has not succeeded in articulating a coherent, paradigm-shifting
(Kuhn, 1970) model or approach that both scholars and practitioners can accept and
work with. Debates about what ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ are, for example,
continue despite recent lucid efforts to bring these two (often theoretically divorced)
domains of organizational practice together in a new kind of pragmatism (Gosling &
Mintzberg, 2003). Some of the more prominent voices in the field of leadership
(Bennis, 1989; Kotter, 1999) have premised much of their work on this very
Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Vol 1(3): 259–278 DOI: 10.1177/1742715005054437 www.sagepublications.com
Leadership
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theoretical distinction between ‘leadership’ and ‘management’, which suggests that
it might take more than a clever Harvard Business Review article here or there to
dislodge what is now seen as common sense. Meanwhile, in the aisles of chain
bookstores across the USA and Britain, prescriptions and admonitions extolling the
leadership virtues of Abraham Lincoln (Phillips, 1992), Robert E. Lee (Crocker,
1999), George S. Patton (Axelrod, 1999), Robert Shackleton (Morrel & Capparell,
2001), Colin Powell (Harari, 2002), Rudolph Giuliani (2002), Winston Churchill
(Hayward, 1997), Attila the Hun (Roberts, 1987), Sun Tsu (McNeilly, 1996), and
even Jesus (Wilkes & Wilkes, 1998), are offered up as guidebooks for leadership
effectiveness.
To what extent, though, is this enthusiastic focus on individual leadership ‘excellence’ helpful, or, more critically, even relevant, in the context of the leadership
exigencies facing contemporary corporate organizations? How important, ultimately,
are individual corporate leaders to the organizational performance of ‘their’
companies, particularly in light of the ever-increasing rates of CEO turnover in
American companies (Lucier et al., 2003), and the short-term thinking that almost
necessarily accompanies such quick turnover cycles? And finally, from a cultural
perspective, what does it say about a society that places such importance on the
heroic-leader figure who almost by definition possesses the capability of betraying
the very public trust that forms the basis of his/her cultural legitimacy?
In the following article, I do not answer these questions or point the way to a
unifying model for understanding leadership. Rather, I use these questions and the
fundamental problematic that underlies them as a starting point to introduce a different scale of analysis to the discussion. The perspective I offer here is not intended to
challenge or undermine existing perspectives on leadership, particularly the more
thoughtful and critical approaches being developed largely in the context of British
and European management education and research (Alvesson & Sveningsson,
2003b; Parker, 2000; Simpson et al., 2002; Tourish & Pennington, 2002). It is
provided as a supplemental perspective, at a different scale of analysis. That scale is
at the level of Culture, considered anthropologically with a capital C. Differentiated
from the narrower focus on corporate culture, I focus here on the way in which
broader, regional cultural structures – shared geography, history, language, folklore,
religion, class relations and so on – create and determine leadership styles and signatures for and of themselves. The anthropology of leadership takes as its object of
study the Culture in which an organization is founded and operates, and in which
individuals work. In the research presented in this article, I focus on the cultural
dimensions of leadership in the American South, which is framed as a distinct
cultural region within the larger scope of American society.
The research
The ideas discussed here are born out of two years of ethnographic and documentary research in three firms (none of the actual names are used here) in a mediumsize city in the American South: two SME family-owned and managed firms, and one
publicly owned S&P 500 bank. Omega Coffee and Tea is a private, family-owned
roaster and distributor of coffee and tea products in the ‘institutional beverage
industry’, supplying hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, and airlines with
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beverage products throughout 26 states. Omega employs about 500 people and has
gross annual revenues of about $130 million. Carthage Construction is also private
and family owned, and is a general construction and engineering company that builds
roads and highways, industrial complexes, and commercial buildings in six states,
and has 1,000 employees with reported annual revenues of about $300 million. And
First Bank South is an S&P 500 bank with over $50 billion in deposits, $2.3 billion
in revenues, and over 12,000 employees throughout nine southern states. First Bank
South is one of the largest and fastest growing financial institutions in the South.
There are four defining characteristics to the style of cultural leadership I discovered
in my research:
1.
2.
3.
4.
The American South is defined by high levels of social capital;
A distinctly southern Protestant work ethic predominates across class lines;
Effective leaders possess exotic educational capital and ‘cosmopolitanism’;
Leaders fulfill the role of ‘keepers of the tribe’.
At the heart of the southern leadership style is a critical balance between a
local/regional legitimacy and authenticity, on the one hand, and ‘exotic’ educational
capital, expertise, and worldliness, on the other. Through their involvement in the
broader world beyond the South, many effective southern leaders develop
professional and personal linkages with other elites in different parts of the country
and the world, representing a type of cosmopolitanism that is inaccessible to their
employees. Elite–elite linkages beyond the purview of employees provide an important foundation for the legitimization of their power as organizational leaders in much
the same way as political leaders have shored up their power in different cultures and
periods throughout human history (Feinman, 1991; Upham, 1990). Possessing local,
technical, and exotic capital endows southern leaders with a powerful foundation
that, in effect, makes them ‘keepers of southern culture’ on behalf of their employees
and their employees’ families. The specific companies, whether public companies or
family firms, that are led in this way are, in an important respect, merely vehicles for
the culture-work that implicates them all.
By subsuming individual personalities within the cultural systems that produce
them, we can see more clearly not only who/what is being led, but the specific values
that define often-unexamined questions such as: What is success? What is employee
loyalty? Why do employees sometimes willingly follow leaders that outside
observers might call ‘bad’ or ‘toxic’? And, how can a better understanding of the
cultural dimension of leadership contribute to more effective selection and development of leaders throughout the ranks of organizations?
Theorizing culture and leadership
In using the terms ‘culture’ and ‘southern culture’ as freely as I am here, it is appropriate to address more directly what I do and do not mean when using these terms.
First, I begin this brief discussion fully aware that many of my anthropological
colleagues have all but abandoned the concept of culture altogether, because of its
potentially essentializing, totalizing, and ‘orientalizing’ epistemological assumptions
(Abu-Lughod, 1989; Clifford, 1988; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Marcus & Fischer,
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1986). However, from the ethnographic research I have conducted in various parts of
the world – among the Kpelle in Liberia, West Africa, among the Comanches in the
American Southwest, and among family firms in the American South – my experience suggests to me that there are many people in the world whose lives continue to
be circumscribed, even largely conditioned by, the weight of inherited histories, roles,
expectations, and cultural structures. For my purposes here, I draw significantly on
the structural cultural theory of Marshall Sahlins (1976, 1999, 2000), and subscribe
to the basic belief that we interpret, act in, and experience the world through (shifting)
cultural structures, codes, or ‘orders’ that not only provide meaning to those experiences (Geertz, 1973), but also condition and direct those experiences. This is not to
suggest that people are controlled absolutely by the cultural schema in which they
find themselves, and there are many sophisticated explanations (Giddens’s ‘structuration theory’ and Bourdieu’s ‘practice theory’) of the ways in which individuals
employ creative strategies to alter, transcend, or escape altogether the cultural orders
in which they are born and raised (Bourdieu, 1990; Giddens, 1979). A working definition of culture, then, could be stated as follows: culture consists of the symbolic
schema, both linguistic and non-linguistic, through which humans apprehend, act in,
and interpret their experience in the world. Because the world pre-exists us as
individuals, ‘we learn culture, we do not discover it’. As Sahlins (1999) interprets
Herder, ‘seeing is dependent on hearing’, for ‘people do not discover the world, they
are taught it’ (p. 413).
According to Sahlins, ‘no culture is sui generis, no people the sole or even the
principle author of their own existence’ (p. 411). The relational thinking that underlies a structural perspective focuses attention on the fact that cultural structures, and
boundaries, are most visible and identifiable when juxtaposed against, and in contact
with, other cultural orders and schemas. Again, Sahlins addresses this in an important way: ‘Consider again the surprising paradox of our time: that localization
develops apace with globalization, differentiation with integration; that just when the
forms of life around the world are becoming homogenous, the peoples are asserting
their cultural distinctiveness’ (p. 410). Similarly, Marilyn Strathern (1995) suggests
that the ‘increasing homogenization of social and cultural forms seems to be accompanied by a proliferation of claims of specific authenticities and identities’ (p. 3). In
considering the dynamics of ‘similitude and difference’, or globalization and localization, Sahlins and Strathern remind us that at the local level what we are witnessing is not the rejection of modernity and globalization but rather the ‘indigenization
of modernity’.
[W]hat they [at the local level] are after is the indigenization of modernity, their
own cultural space in the global scheme of things. They would make some
autonomy of their heteronomy. Hence what needs to be recognized is that
similitude is a necessary condition of the differentiation. (Sahlins, 1999: 410–11)
The South’s ‘uniqueness’, as described in the terms that I outline here – high levels
of social capital, fundamentalist Protestantism, patriarchal class formations and so
on – can be understood as counter-positions to a perceived dominant national cultural
order that is seen as not being sufficiently religious, male defined, and normative.
The resulting cultural order in the South informs and even permeates the organizations considered here, as well as many other institutions in the region. The
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implications of this permeation, particularly as it relates to the indigenization and
localization of global business practices, are very significant for the development
of the anthropological theory of leadership I outline here. Before I address that
directly, though, I want to briefly present what I see as a potential contribution of a
Sahlinsian view of culture to the general field of organizational studies.
Culture vs organizational culture
A Sahlinsian perspective on Culture can contribute to the study of ‘organizational
culture’ in a few specific ways. First, a structural understanding of culture focuses on
Culture, first, and on organizational culture, second. A Saussurian vocabulary is
helpful here, wherein organizational cultures are to a given Culture what a specific
parole is to its determining langue (Sahlins, 1999: 412). Granted that there are individual differences in ‘the way people do things around here’ (Deal & Kennedy, 1982:
4), it remains an open question what that really has to do with Culture, per se. How
different is one company’s ‘way of doing things’ (or ‘culture’) from another’s, and
how much of ‘that way’ is really just an instantiation of a Western, utilitarian, capitalist cultural order? This is not a new line of thinking in organizational studies, as
others (Alvesson, 2002; Morgan, 1997; Parker, 2000) have raised these questions in
much more sophisticated ways than I do here. Alvesson (2002), particularly, suggests
that ‘organizational culture as metaphor’ might be one of the more sensible ways to
think of how the culture concept is used in the corporate setting. What is interesting
about corporate organizations, though, from an anthropological perspective, is the
way in which they represent conjunctural sites where local cultural orders articulate
with global capitalism and its utilitarian cultural logics. While there exists a rich and
intelligent literature (largely in Britain and Europe) that systematically challenges the
cultural logic of Western utilitarianism masked as the value-free, ‘scientific’ practice
of management (Alvesson, 2000; Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Collinson, 2003;
Knights & Willmott, 1990), I continue to struggle to connect the dots between this
critical intellectual challenge to the hegemony of managerialism, on the one hand,
with an anthropological understanding of the concept of Culture, on the other. In
keeping with the anthropological conviction that Culture matters, as a structuring
principle in human societies and not simply as an ‘after the fact’ provider of meaning
and comfort, much of what passes for cultural analysis in mainstream organizational
studies cheapens and commodifies the concept in troublesome ways.
In American organizational studies, the work of Edgar Schein has loomed particularly large in the field, in part because of the language of ‘symbolic anthropology’
on which he has built his theory. His main thesis, that ‘the unique and essential
function of leadership is the manipulation of culture’ (Schein, 1985: 317), and that
‘leadership is culture management’ (p. 326), seduces American readers into embracing the exoticism of cultural anthropology, wherein ‘rites’, ‘rituals’, and symbols turn
the American corporation into a Disneyesque ‘forest of symbols’ (Turner, 1967).
From a Sahlinsian perspective, Schein’s ‘symbolic management as leadership’ observation is disconnected, hollow, and decontextualized. Schein’s focus on what he calls
the three levels of culture – visible artifacts and ‘material culture’, stated values and
beliefs, and underlying, unarticulated assumptions (Schein, 1985: 14) – is located in
and restricted to the organization, and is bracketed off from the Culture in which the
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organization resides. Separated from the determining Cultural and politicaleconomic contexts in which a specific organization resides, the ‘culture management’
that Schein talks about is not so much about culture as it is organizational behavior
and performance. In leaving this fundamental gap unattended, Schein makes it
difficult for the anthropologist to take very seriously his particular variety of sociopsychological appropriation of the culture concept. Most recently, Schein has
leveraged his considerable celebrity as a corporate culture guru in his book, The
Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999), which is a kind of manual that helps
confused corporate managers navigate the corporate ‘forest of symbols’.
A Sahlinsian organizational anthropology would suggest, on the other hand, that
a particular ‘organizational culture’ is not the unique possession of the organization,
its members, or its leadership, but rather is produced at the intersection of a local
cultural schema as the organization interacts with larger (national and global) forces
within its industry. Contrary to Schein’s (1985) rather axiomatic statement that
‘[o]rganizational cultures are created by leaders’ (p. 2), I would offer that Culture
creates organizational cultures, and that leaders emerge somewhere in the muddle of
that process. This does not deny that some firms possess unique ways of doing certain
things. However, the proliferation of ‘culture change programs’ across the corporate
landscape would suggest just how shallow, malleable, and lacking in history and
authenticity such ‘cultures’ can be. Cultures do change, but they cannot be changed.
To arrive at a meaningful anthropological understanding of culture in corporate
organizations, it is necessary to look outside the organization, at the intersection of
the local and the global, at the indigenization of the utilitarian cultural order that
orders the business environment. Such a conversation shifts the attention from an
‘anthropology for business’ (Schein, 1985), to an ‘anthropology of business’.
The anthropology of leadership
The foregoing discussion has important implications for the development of an
anthropological theory of leadership. Primarily, I want to pick up on the theme,
drawn from my discussion of Culture and its relationship to corporate organizations,
that important insights into the inner-workings of organizations can be found
outside the organization itself, in the interstices between firm, immediate cultural
environment, and national/global forces. Effective leadership knowledge, aptitude,
and, perhaps above all else, legitimacy and authenticity, can be located, in the eyes
and experience of employees, in the regional cultural order more so than in a given
individual organization and its mission/vision statements. Leadership, as I am
defining it anthropologically in the context of the American South, is ‘a mediating,
translating, representational and technical function and capacity, wherein organizational leaders possess legitimacy in both the local cultural order and the global
world (of business), and in whom the indigenization of modernity takes place’. It
is in the cultural order of a place like the American South that one identifies legitimacy and authenticity, and it is cultural legitimacy and authenticity to which
organizational members voluntarily commit as followers. Thus, by prioritizing an
outside-in view of the importance of Culture in southern organizations, one sees
that one of the roles, if not the most important role, of leaders of these organizations is as leaders of southern culture. That is, they possess cultural capital as
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locals, and managerial capital as global businessmen, and in this interstitial role
they become cultural leaders and protectors.
It is important to note that ‘leading culture’ is different from leading organizations. Leading an organization is a subset of leading culture. For all of the fantastic variety of leadership theory available, the majority of them focus primarily on
individuals, and organizations, but not on Culture. Dominant models of leadership,
from transformational leadership (Burns, 1978), to servant leadership (Greenleaf,
1997), to leadership grounded in high levels of emotional intelligence (Goleman,
1998), to distributed leadership (Vanderslice, 1988), assume a kind of individual
selflessness that is so rare, humble, and anti-heroic that it nonetheless elevates the
(selfless) individual to a heroic individual status. Perhaps the most revealing theory
of leadership in this regard is Jim Collins’s (2001) notion of ‘Level 5 Leadership.’
In his breakthrough Harvard Business Review article, ‘Level 5 Leadership: The
Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve’, Collins outlines the attributes and qualities that make for leaders capable of leading firms from average performance to
great (market-beating) performance. The success of the great companies outlined in
the article and in the book is due, according to Collins, to paradoxically gifted individuals. In the HBR article, Collins wastes no time. The opening paragraph of the
article reads:
What catapults a company from merely good to truly great? A five-year research
project searched for the answer to that question, and its discoveries ought to
change the way we think about leadership. The most powerfully transformative
executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and profound will.
They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare and unstoppable.
(p. 67)
Collins’s ‘Level 5 Leadership’ has it all: transformational capability, emotional intelligence, humility and servant-like qualities, even the get-toughness of a Jack Welch
or Al Dunlap. Yet the success, or greatness, of these companies, we are made to
believe, is attributable to a new kind of (quiet and humble yet equally powerful)
heroic individual. Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003a, 2003b) have recently
commented on how mundane, and even uneventful, effective corporate leadership
can be, which raises questions about which if any ‘theory of leadership’ (including
the one I am advancing here) really resonates very far from one cultural order and
one organization to another.
Finally, an ‘anthropology of leadership’ would suggest that organizational
leadership has to be studied empirically in the conjuncture between local culture
schema and larger economic and cultural forces in order to be fully understood. In
some respects, the anthropology of leadership is more a method for understanding
leadership in different cultural contexts than it is a theory of leadership. No one
particular leadership theory, or style, or approach, can necessarily be carried over
from one firm to the next. Perhaps this is possible in some cases, and not in others.
It is very doubtful that the type of leader–follower dynamic that I discuss here, with
respect to the American South, would be very effective in other parts of the USA.
However, whether it is in the Midwest, the Southwest, or the South, if one wants to
understand successful leadership in companies of that regional culture, taking a close,
hard look at the culture itself would be a good place to start.
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Towards an anthropology of the American South
For my purposes here, I define the ‘South’ as including the states of Louisiana,
Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Fewer
Southerners leave the communities/areas of their birth than in any other part of the
country. As a result, residency and tenure patterns tend to be among the most demographically stable in the country (Schachter, 2000). This is part of the equation that
Richard Florida (2003) includes in his discussion of ‘social capital’ and how it relates
to innovation and productivity in different parts of the USA. Markets with high levels
of social capital tend to also be regions where people ‘move away from home’ less
frequently than in low social capital markets, which are characterized by a continual
in-flow of new people (Florida, 2003). Also, as a percentage of the total population,
more people (some 50 per cent) regularly attend church in the South (at least once a
week) than in any other part of the country, and some 55 per cent of Christians in the
South identify themselves as born-again, evangelical Christians (ABCnews.com Poll,
28 February 2002). A 1995 poll in Alabama, for example, found that some 61 per
cent of the people in the state do not accept the ‘theory’ of evolution, and prefer
instead the Biblical story of creation as a way to explain human origins. As a result
of the groundswell of belief in creationism in Alabama, it is now co-taught as one of
two competing ‘theories’ of human origins (the other being ‘evolution’) in state
schools. In light of these observations, religious behavior in the South earns the reputation as being the heart of the American ‘Bible Belt’, a label that many Southerners
proudly embrace.
Social hierarchy in the American South
Throughout the article I refer at different times to issues relating to southern culture
being ‘culturally conservative’ and what that means in terms of gender ideologies,
ethnic relations, and class boundaries and identities. While this does not make up a
significant portion of my research, and thus represents a weakness in my project, I
do want to address these three dimensions of southern social life before I discuss the
more empirical material. Social hierarchies of various sorts provide a subtle yet ubiquitous texture to social life in the South. And while there are cogent debates concerning the extent to which, for example, gender discrimination should be discussed as
part of class discrimination (Garnsey, 1982; Hartmann, 1982; Parkin, 1971), here I
will discuss gender, class, and ethnicity in a single conversation. At the center of
social hierarchy in southern life is a male-centric religious worldview that manifests
itself as a color-caste hierarchy in which white males represent a founding source of
authority and power, with white women, working class white men, and African
Americans representing in descending order the store of available power and influence within the overall cultural structure.
To start with, each of the three firms studied here – Omega (the aggressive sales
company), Carthage (a construction company), and First Bank South (a bank) – exist
and compete in overtly male-defined types of businesses. At Omega, for example, I
asked the Director of Training if there were any female salespersons working in the
field, and he said that there was one, but he indicated that she was not likely to last
in that role. It is significant to note that with a sales staff of almost 200 people, there
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is only one female ‘salesman’. He suggested that, despite her best efforts, the rigors
of the job were making it too difficult for her. I have accompanied salesmen (or
‘Territory Managers’) on their routes, and I can attest that there are heavy boxes and
bags that must be lifted off of the trucks; however, I also know plenty of women who
are very fit and could easily perform all aspects of this job. Being able to ‘perform’
the tasks of the job is not, though, what the intense maleness of the Territory
Manager’s (TMs) job is about. TMs at Omega are not college educated, upwardly
mobile company employees; rather, they are working-class men for whom their work
and their careers are central to their identity and sense of self. Whether they are TMs
at Omega or on-site project managers at Carthage, most of these men are working
class. Unencumbered by the ‘meritocratic ideology’ of individual achievement and
success (Collinson, 2003: 531) that characterizes many areas and industries of the
American economy, working-class employees in the South are often un-conflicted
with respect to a lack of career mobility and eagerly embrace their working (class)
life as a ‘heroic sacrifice for their children’ and their spouse (p. 531). Referring to
the seminal work of Gray (1987), Collinson (1992) suggests that such ‘workers
elevate themselves as a defense mechanism against the indignities and frustration of
class inequalities’ (p. 36). As Gray (1987) puts it: ‘The men can say we’re doing
men’s work; it’s physically tough, women can’t do it, nor can the bankers or the politicians. Tough work gives a sense of masculine superiority that compensates for being
stepped on and ridiculed’ (p. 225). The reclamation of masculinity, through the very
subordination of the work itself, plays into and reinforces the relations of power that
keep employees in these firms from questioning and challenging corporate communications and directives that might appear contradictory or even abusive to an outsider.
With respect to ethnicity and ‘race’ in the South, I have not pursued this dimension of southern corporate life in my current research. In what is perhaps the most
defensive region in the USA with respect to race relations and race discrimination,
many white Southerners, including senior management at First Bank South,
Carthage, and Omega, believe that ‘racial problems’ (as they are often referred to)
are a thing of the past. Yet, at neither Omega nor Carthage are there any African
Americans employed at the senior manager level, with a single African American
accountant at Omega being the one exception. As important as this line of research
is, research on ethnic relations in corporate environments in the South poses significant problems of access, openness etc.
Social capital
It has been suggested recently that there is an inverse and measurable relationship
between ‘social capital’, on the one hand, and innovation and organizational
creativity, on the other (Florida, 2003; Florida et al., 2002). For quite some time
researchers (Putnam, 2000) assumed that ‘social capital’, defined as social environments with ‘strong social networks – tight communities bounded by shared norms,
trust, and reciprocity’ naturally translated into more effective and reliable business
relationships and therefore greater productivity. More recently, however, scholars
have produced research showing that, in many respects, high levels of social capital
tend to actually result in community-wide complacency, insulation from the outside
world and outside influences, and thus less business innovation and creativity
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(Florida et al., 2002: 20). Research by Florida and colleagues suggests that communities with low social capital – Seattle, Boulder, San Francisco, Austin – tend to
produce more technological and business innovation precisely because of weaker
social norms, values, and established social networks. The idea is that in places where
relatively young, highly educated and mobile knowledge workers come together,
there will be a higher density of creative churn and therefore new patents, technologies, and even industries that are created.
Conversely, the research suggests, in communities where people live and work
where they grew up, and often work for people that they have known since childhood, there is much less likelihood that new and innovative ideas (from the outside)
will enter into those workplace environments. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the
study finds that the American South is, in general, a region of the USA defined by
exceptionally high levels of social capital (Florida et al., 2002: 20). In high social
capital regions, such as the South, this research indicates that, ‘strong ties can also
promote the sort of conformity that undermines innovation’ (p. 20). Because my
research in southern firms has not been concentrated on innovation, number of new
technology patents filed and so on, I do not have data of this sort to discuss. I do
think, though, that the authors of this and related studies are identifying a type of
sociological dynamic that is important to the cultural analysis of leadership. How
likely are employees to pick up and move to another city for a different, or a better,
job? How committed, in practice, are individual employees to the cultural values and
‘collective representations’ of a particular part of the world and to the specific manifestation of those values in the organization for which they work? Answers to these
sorts of questions can help illuminate not only questions about leadership, but also
increasingly important questions about ‘followership’ that are being posed more and
more often.
Omega Coffee and Tea
For example, Omega Coffee and Tea has been in continuous operation in the same
city since 1896, and has been owned by only two families during that time. The
current family have owned the business since 1950, when the current leader’s father
bought the business from the founding family. From the very beginning of the current
owning-family’s tenure, they have consciously cultivated a friendly paternalism that
saturates the company’s culture. Ever ready to help employees with problems they
may have outside of work, they have evolved a system of reciprocity and indebtedness that colors all organizational life at Omega. In my interviews with employees
there, I regularly met employees who not only have worked for Omega for over 25
years, but who also have spouses or children who work there. The family feel that
has evolved over time at Omega has functioned as a substitute for competitive
salaries, as I was told several times, and in the same tone, ‘well, we sure don’t work
here for the money’. Another kind of comfort is on offer in the psychological contract
between employer and employee at Omega. At least half a dozen families have
multiple family members working at Omega, not to mention the four owning family
members who hold the top leadership positions. Virtually all the employees I met at
Omega, as well as the family that currently owns and manages the company, are from
the area in which the company is headquartered, by which I mean that they and their
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parents were born in the same area. A few employees that I met (though I am sure
there are others) were born in other parts of the South, and I never met a single
employee who was not southern.
This intense ‘localness’, and the social capital that it embodies, articulates
extremely well with the current chairman’s particular style of management. The
current chairman is, in a rather straightforward and unabashed manner, clearly the
company patriarch, not a single important decision being made without his approval.
While the family firm literature warns of the many managerial hazards associated
with overly patriarchal leadership styles (Dyer, 2003; Hoy, 2003; Stewart, 2003), it
is nonetheless the defining mold of hierarchy that dominates at Omega. It should be
noted that, in light of the company’s continuing growth, both in terms of sales figures
and market share, this style indeed ‘works’ in this environment. More about the
cultural and religious origins of this patriarchal style will be introduced shortly.
First Bank South
In contrast to the organizational and leadership structures at Omega, First Bank South
(FBS) is a large S&P 500 company with 12,000 employees and $2.3 billion in annual
revenues. However, in terms of organizational culture and social organization,
Omega and FSB have much in common. Though large and public, FBS is also
intensely local and possesses tremendous social capital for an organization its size.
It is, like Omega, run very much like a family firm. The firm’s CEO has run the
company for over 30 years, ever since his family’s small-town bank merged with the
urban bank that eventually became FBS. Though his ownership is not controlling
ownership, he and his family are the largest individual shareholders in the company
and his family have been closely identified with the company’s management throughout the company’s entire modern period. Most of the officers, as well as the
company’s senior management, have been with the company for over 20 years, which
has nurtured a family-like feel inside the organization. The shared organizational
history that these long-term employees have in common forms the basis of a very
local organizational culture, which is intimately intertwined with the region’s high
levels of social capital, and thus the company has a significant number of ‘lifers’.
Like Omega, the origins of FBS in the region go back to the 19th-century (1887
to be precise), which is another strong source of continuity for the firm in the city
and in the South. Thus, despite the company’s tremendous growth throughout the
20th-century, especially over the past 20 years, into one of the top 15 banks in the
USA, it is palpably constituted, managed, and experienced very much like a local
bank. Like Omega, it cannot escape, and is implicated in, the high level of social
capital that defines many of the urban markets of the South.
Carthage Construction
At Carthage Construction, a private, family-held firm that has operated in the same
southern city since 1889, it is not uncommon to encounter employees who have been
with the company for over 30 years. As a builder first of railroads, then city, county
and state roads throughout the region, as well as many industrial and military installations, Carthage has a very visible presence throughout the South. Having been
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owned and managed by the same family for its entire history, Carthage is largely
defined by long-term relationships. The owning family’s relationships with its
employees are, in ways that extend well beyond the world of work, very much like
family relationships. Unlike Omega, however, Carthage does pay competitive
salaries, and it extends ownership opportunities to some of its employees, something
that Omega has refused to do. This engenders even more loyalty, commitment, and
longevity than one finds at Omega. And, with a significantly less centralized leadership structure and style, Carthage entrusts its unit managers to work much more
independently than their counterparts at Omega. This difference in style originates
with Carthage’s CEO who, though he is ever-conscious of the financial picture of the
company, has intentionally provided much more freedom and independence to his
officers and managers than have the leaders of either Omega or FBS.
Despite the differences identified in these three firms, their historical and cultural
identification in high social capital geographies points to an important similarity. In
a cultural region such as the Deep South, employers can count on a measure of
compliance, fixity, and submission to an existing social order that employers in more
mobile (low social capital) geographies cannot rely on. Connected with, and bound
to, specific social geographies – via history, kinship, religion, and language –
working lives submit to the larger structures of identification that condition and color
the total social environment.
Southern Protestant work ethic
I want to now consider more fully the religious element of social and organizational
life in the South. In light of the southern paradox introduced here, that is, the trade
off between stability, compliance and employee retention, on the one hand, and low
levels of employee individuality, creativity, and innovation, on the other, it might
appear that this sets up as a formula for organizational ineffectiveness. Interestingly,
for the three firms considered here, this has not necessarily been the case.
How is it that the social force of southern Protestantism forms the foundation for
the leadership style I am trying to describe here? First of all, in terms of religious
affiliation and behavior, the South remains ‘the most conservative portion of the U.S.’
and the ‘hold of orthodox Protestantism upon Southerners’ remains intact despite
‘earth-shaking changes in industry, transportation, and education’ (Hill, 1975: 12).
In his discussion of the differences between Weber’s classic formulation of the
‘Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism’ and a distinctly southern
Protestant work ethic, Peacock (1971) provides a helpful introduction to the cultural
dimensions of southern Protestantism. Both the classic Protestant work ethic idea
and the southern Protestant work ethic concept speak to a fundamental asceticism.
Frightened by the ‘terrifying distance between God and Man’, the Calvinist calling
compels the faithful to sacrifice worldly comfort and pleasure, to ‘systematize his
entire life into an incessant, methodical, pious, straight and narrow movement serving
God’s glory and Kingdom’ (pp. 108–9). Both thrift and efficient management of time
are also integral parts of the movement towards God, and thus work – organizations,
careers, management, leadership and so on – can become part of religious expression.
Modesty and humility, manifested in saving money and not frivolously spending it
or displaying it, are also measures of one’s potential closeness to God. According to
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Peacock, there is a subtle but important difference between the classical notion of the
Protestant work ethic and a more specific southern version of it:
The Classical Protestant ethic defines such asceticism as a rational means toward
more efficient services to God’s ends. Lacking this orientation, the Southern
Protestant Ethic views ascetic prohibitions less as efficient means towards ends
than as absolute and unquestioned laws unto themselves. (p. 109)
The cultural prevalence of absolutism and unquestioned laws provides the classificatory and symbolic structure for truly understanding southern leadership.
In interviews with employees at FBS, the most commonly used phrase in
describing the company’s ethos, or culture, is the expression ‘we are a hard driving
sales culture’. The notion of a sales culture is definitional to FBS’s identity, both
inside and outside the firm. One employee confirmed what I at first understood to be
a kind of myth about the company’s CEO. He said that employees routinely try to
avoid contact with him in the hallways of the company’s headquarters, for fear that
he will ask them the dreaded question: ‘What new customers have you brought to
the bank today?’ To follow up, the CEO says, ‘Go ahead and get me a memo (or
email) on that before you head home today’. Despite the pressure to perform, and to
deliver new deposits to the bank, FBS employees are some of the most loyal
employees in the region, many with whom I spoke having at least 15 years’ tenure
in the firm. Interestingly, employees jokingly suggest that top performers in the firm
do not actually retire from the bank; rather, their physicians require them to quit after
they have their first heart attack.
FBS is not alone in its ability to leverage employee compliance as ‘organizational
energy’ (Bruch & Ghoshal, 2003) in pursuit of its strategic objectives. Carthage
Construction has operated several independent businesses for over 80 years, and so
the social capital that they enjoy across the South is considerable. Sometimes,
though, this can work to Carthage’s disadvantage. In conversation with the CEO of
one of Carthage’s independent businesses, a ready-mix concrete business with $90
million in annual revenues, I was provided a window onto Carthage’s long-term
success:
We drive our employees hard, maybe too hard. Over the past years Carthage
employees have been so intense in the way they do business that it actually hurts
here in our ready mix business, which we try to run independently. Carthage has
been so successful over here that they are now like the big fish that everyone
wants to beat up on. Really, they have been ruthless. We downplay the fact that
we are owned by Carthage, that way we get more business.
Different in many fundamental ways from FBS, Carthage nonetheless drives its
employees hard, and expects nothing but market dominance in the individual markets
it enters. In the case of Carthage, the family that owns and manages the firm is overtly
very religious. And, while there is no open conversation about religion with
employees, as there is at Omega, the Carthage ‘culture’ prides itself, despite its reputation as being ruthless in the marketplace, on being an ethical culture inspired by
religious values.
More directly to the issue of religion in the management of southern firms, the
Chairman of Omega puts it straightforwardly in the following way: ‘I see myself as
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a steward of something I have been blessed with. I fulfill my obligation as a steward
of my daddy’s company according to the Judeo-Christian ethic of hard work and
humility’. In the case of Omega Coffee and Tea, the Southern Protestant Work Ethic
introduced by Peacock (1971) and elaborated on here, finds full expression. The
current Chairman’s father, in fact, strongly suggested that his employees ‘find a
church home’ and make it part of their lives. One former Omega employee, who
worked for the previous CEO from 1952 to 1967, said that he was ‘grateful to his
boss for helping him find God in his life’. The religious underpinnings of Omega’s
organizational culture are not passive or idle expressions of belief. Like both FBS
and Carthage, Omega is a hard-driving sales culture that has had market growth as
its number one priority for 30 years. Since the current chairman took over control of
the company in 1968 after his father’s death, Omega has acquired some 60 smaller
(competitor) companies and has grown from being a strictly regional company into
a national company with customers in 26 states.
During the course of my research I was invited to attend Omega’s annual sales
meeting in one of the convention halls near its headquarters. Without being properly
briefed on the near-military nature of the gathering, I was surprised to see the 200 or
so salesmen (no women that I could see) dressed exactly alike. Same shoes, pants,
same shirt and tie, and, remarkably, most of the men not only wore their hair in a
similar way but also actually looked alike. Conformity is the only word that can
describe the scene in the convention hall that day. More than the uniformity, though,
what was most palpable during the event was the manufactured enthusiasm and the
unwritten rules that governed group and individual behavior at the event. Submission
to the Omega way, on display in a playful yet coercive way once a year at the
company’s annual sales meeting, has produced a highly effective ‘army’ of (unquestioning) salesmen who have committed themselves to the success of the company
with something close to, if not actually, a ‘religious fervor’. As has been discussed
by Woolsey Biggart (1989) in her study of direct sales organizations (DSOs), such
events function very effectively as ‘control strategies’ which bring dispersed sales
personnel together in order to reinforce ‘homogeneity’, ‘institutional completeness’,
‘regularized group contact’, ‘ritual’ and competition (pp. 149–52). Competition over
annual sales awards both increases company sales and induces salesmen to try and
win grand prizes such as cruises. In that the competitions are based on the entire fiscal
year, they subtly direct the behavior of the sales staff over the course of the whole
year. And, as the presenters are dressed as favorite Hollywood characters, the entire
event takes on a truly Disneyesque quality, where ‘organizational identities’ are
produced and controlled (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002) in the context of corporate
theatre and kitsch.
Exotic educational capital and cosmopolitanism
Thus far in the discussion I have concentrated on the social constitution of the
leadership milieu in which effective leaders in southern firms find their resonance
and legitimacy. Consideration of the high levels of social capital, which includes the
southern Protestant work ethic that serves as the ‘glue’ of the region’s cultural structure (Sahlins, 1999), has underscored the important ways in which employees and
their leaders co-create the same social universe. That is, the focus up to this point has
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been on the extent to which corporate leaders in the South are, in a culturally saturated sense, ‘always one of us’. While this is an indispensable element of the southern
leadership dynamic, it is at the same time necessary for leaders to differentiate themselves from their followers in distinct and symbolically potent ways. Education and
world travel are two powerful idioms through which this differentiation is achieved.
The CEOs of each of the firms considered here were products of local public high
schools, but each went on later in life to top-tier business schools ‘out of the South’.
The CEO of FBS, for example, attended public schools through high school in a
small southern town, and then one of the region’s public universities. After graduating from university, he worked for the family bank for several years before going off
to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to get an MBA. Equipped
with an MBA from one of the top business schools in the world, he then possessed
enormous technical and intellectual credibility from the beginning of his tenure as
leader of FBS. Not only was he one of us, attending the same university as many of
his employees, but he had also gone ‘back east’ to an Ivy League school to learn
things that transcended the local. A trader in FBS’s Securities Department told me:
‘I’ve only met him [the CEO] a couple of times, but I can tell you one thing, he’s one
of the smartest people you’ll ever meet’. On what basis these comments are made is
difficult to know, given that this employee has only spoken directly to the CEO on a
few occasions. What it does suggest, though, is that the CEO’s star (both as a smart
person and as a successful business ‘man’) has risen over the years along with the
company’s share price. What other measures of intelligence are at play here might
be knowable only from inside the firm.
A similar situation where ‘one of us’ also has an Ivy League MBA exists interestingly at both Carthage and Omega. The CEOs of both firms have Harvard MBAs,
which lends them a stamp of intellectual and symbolic power, as well as distance,
that few individual employees in either firm possess. Both leaders are known as tough
men who negotiate hard and are hard to work for. Their toughness and intelligence
are seen as serving the interests of the company, while they distinguish themselves
as separate from and superior to the rest of the employees in the firm. Their separation is critical to the southern leadership paradox: who is in a position to question
the judgment of someone who has a Harvard MBA?
The exotic educational capital that these three leaders possess is important at
another level as well. On the one hand, it provides the stamp of technical and intellectual competency and legitimacy needed to sustain the respect and commitment of
other employees who are also well educated. It is well understood that high performers lose respect for their superiors if they feel that they lack necessary technical
competence (Bennis, 1989; Kotter, 1999). Therefore, a certain measure of technical/
functional competency is a prerequisite for effective leadership in today’s technologically complex business environment. On the other hand, there is an inherent value
in the exotic quality of the educational value/capital that these leaders possess and
implicitly hold over their employees. The anthropological literature, drawn largely
from archaeological studies, chronicles how in many different contexts the symbolic
power inhered in ‘foreign preciosities’ helps establish and maintain social power in
local contexts. In their research on the development of differential wealth and status
in southern Mexico (Feinman, 1991), and in the American Southwest (Upham, 1990),
archaeologists have found numerous ‘foreign’ items located in burial sites thousands
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of miles from where they naturally occur. Coastal shells from southern Mexico have
been found in burial sites of ‘elites’ in the American Southwest, and obsidian from
the Southwest is found in burial sites in southern Mexico. The households and burial
sites in which these items are found suggest that they belonged to the elites of their
local region, a status that was drawn largely from the elites’ ability to trade with one
another over this considerable distance. Elite–elite exchange of exotic items, archaeologists think, provided them with a kind of foreign-derived symbolic capital that
was unavailable to ‘commoners’ in the local context. As Feinman (1991) says: ‘These
items [i.e. ‘preciosities’] (and the information conveyed with them) helped to socially
distinguish certain individuals, households, corporate groups, and communities’
(p. 261). The distant and unknown origin of the preciosities, beyond the reach of most
people, is thought to have contributed to the class and status differentiation identified in sites in Mexico and the Southwest. Embodied in the preciosities was an
ideology of exotic power that united elites across enormous distances, endowing
those elite–elite linkages with a source of power unavailable to common people on
either end of the exchange. Elite–elite linkages, which formed the ideological justification for the power and privilege that they enjoyed vis-à-vis their followers, were a
necessary factor in building their mandate to ‘lead culture’. Similarly, in many firms
in the American South, and in particular the ones I discuss here, possession of toptier, Ivy League MBAs provides local corporate leaders with an immensely powerful
source of symbolic capital that few, if any, of their followers can or do possess.
Keepers of the tribe
Endowed with exotic symbolic capital, these three CEOs become citizens of two
worlds: the local world of the firm and the community, and the global business world
made up of Ivy League MBA businessmen like themselves. Having branched out
from the local culture, perhaps for undergraduate school but most importantly for the
MBA, these leaders are both ‘one of us’ and part of the global business elite. Other
important elements of this elite status pertain to the ownership of ‘second homes’
that are beyond the reach of employees, and to the frequent international travel that
each of them engages in. In a conversation with a Carthage employee, I asked about
the whereabouts of the CEO one afternoon and he said: ‘I think he is in Scotland, or
England, or somewhere’. The tone in his voice belied an element of frustration, as
if he was saying that ‘wherever he is is a place I will never visit’. While such
observable differences in wealth, access, and power could potentially be a source of
hostility and resistance, in this context they ironically serve to reinforce the inequities
that are definitional to the cultural structures that provide all parties within the social
hierarchy with a sense of place in the culture. Between their Ivy League degrees and
their latest trip to Tuscany, Provence, or Scotland, the cosmopolitanism of these
southern leaders assures their followers that the world is a known entity, and that in
this knowledge, neither they nor the organization are naïve in the world. In this way,
the CEOs, through their worldliness and their possession of powerful exotic capital,
are protectors and keepers of the organization, and of the cultural system that
spawned the organization in the first instance.
As ‘keepers of the tribe’ – the company and the regional culture that it represents
– successful southern corporate leaders possess something that corporate leaders the
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world over wish they had: cultural subjects. Employee buy-in and commitment,
founded in their being committed to the culture first, and then the organization,
second, present a situation that is unique and surprisingly effective from a managerial perspective. The fulcrum of the southern leadership paradox I am describing is
the trade off between this very loyalty, on the one hand, and the lack of breakthrough
innovation on which it depends, on the other (Florida, 2003). This would suggest
that, in these three firms and firms like them, future competitiveness will continue to
depend on the commitment by senior leadership to send the ‘best and brightest’ off
to top-tier MBA programs so that, at the organizational level, the firms remain
connected with the creativity and innovation of the larger world. At both Carthage
and Omega this is already happening, which suggests that, at least implicitly, the
current leaders in these firms understand the southern paradox and are
(un)consciously managing it.
Conclusion: Cultural leaders and cultural subjects
Given the delimited cultural geography represented by the firms discussed here, the
applicability of these types of findings with regard to other cultural areas remains
very much an open question. Unlike the broad strokes approach often used to make
sense of management and leadership across cultures (Trompenaars & HampdenTurner, 2000, 2001), my goals here have been more modest. However, as a type of
methodological approach to studying the cultural dimensions of leadership, it is
hoped that this study will help others in their thinking about the relationship between
culture and leadership.
Specifically, it seems that despite the obvious substantive differences that might
exist between one cultural region and another, this level/scale of analysis might be
useful for firms for several specific reasons. First of all, in prioritizing the issue of
cultural resonance (and the ‘cultural leader/cultural subject dyad’), the staffing
function – writing job descriptions, interviewing, recruiting, selecting, and training
and so on – can perhaps be sharpened and in so doing incur fewer costs in terms of
lost hires and early employee attrition. Second, leadership development initiatives
can also be made more balanced by including ‘cultural resonance’ as part of the
leadership development process so that the leadership pipeline is sustainable. Third,
it is hoped that this discussion of ‘leading culture’ can contribute in some small way
to the more important issue of corporate social responsibility (CSR). If CSR is
defined as the process of engendering firms that are holistic, sustainable, and in tune
with local communities, then a focus on the cultural dimensions of an organization’s
leadership challenges, wherever it might be located, would be helpful.
And finally, it should be made clear that I am not advocating simple-minded
‘localness’ and cultural homogenization. Really, I am arguing in a different direction
altogether. Discourses about globalization exist at a certain level, and in a certain
space, within our evolving global society. For the plant workers at Omega, or the
construction crews at Carthage, or the bank tellers at First Bank South, that discursive space is far, far removed from their daily reality. While the competitive forces
of globalization clearly do indirectly impinge on the work being done by employees
at these firms, those connections might never be made perfectly clear. Whether in
York, in the north of England, or in El Paso, Texas, or Jackson, Mississippi, the
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experience of work, and of organizational identity, remains a very local experience
for most people. Employees of most organizations go to work, ultimately, as part of
kin and community-based efforts at social reproduction, not to make a contribution
to the development of a global society. In this respect, social reproduction and
organizational leadership necessarily intersect at a local level. It might serve us well
for our theorizing about leadership to reflect this localness.
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Andrew M. Jones is Director of the Institute for Applied Anthropology, an anthropological consultancy that provides organizational research services for corporate
organizations. He is also a lecturer of Organizational Behavior and Management in
the Business School at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, USA. For the past
several years he has been researching and writing about leadership and culture in
family firms. His current research is focused on ritual processes, liminality, identity
management, and conflict management in leadership development programs in the
USA and Europe. [email: [email protected]]
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