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 1(3) Articles 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 ‘excel lence’ 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 differ ent 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 signa tures 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 ideas discussed here are born out of two years of ethnographic and documen tary research in three firms (none of the actual names are used here) in a medium size 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. The American South is defined by high levels of social capital; 2. A distinctly southern Protestant work ethic predominates across class lines; 3. Effective leaders possess exotic educational capital and ‘cosmopolitanism’; 4. 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 import ant 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 develop ment of leaders throughout the ranks of organizations?
In using the terms ‘culture’ and ‘southern culture’ as freely as I am here, it is appro priate 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,
Leadership 1(3) Articles 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 experi ence 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 experi ences (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 ‘structura tion 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 defi nition 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 under lies 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 import ant 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 accom panied by a proliferation of claims of specific authenticities and identities’ (p. 3). In considering the dynamics of ‘similitude and difference’, or globalization and local ization, Sahlins and Strathern remind us that at the local level what we are witness ing 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
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 organiz ations 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.
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
vidual 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, capi talist 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 particu larly 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 embrac ing 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’ obser vation 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
Leadership 1(3) Articles organization resides. Separated from the determining Cultural and political economic 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 socio psychological appropriation of the culture concept. Most recently, Schein has leveraged his considerable celebrity as a corporate culture guru in his book, The
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 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 organiz ational 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 legit imacy 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 organiz ations 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 organiz ations. Leading an organization is a subset of leading culture. For all of the fantas tic 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 qual ities 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 indi viduals. 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 intel ligence, 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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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 demo graphically 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 repu tation as being the heart of the American ‘Bible Belt’, a label that many Southerners proudly embrace.
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 ubiq uitous texture to social life in the South. And while there are cogent debates concern ing 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 influ ence 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 poli ticians. 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 communi cations 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 dimen sion 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 signifi cant problems of access, openness etc.
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 environ ments 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
Leadership 1(3) Articles (Florida et al., 2002: 20). Research by Florida and colleagues suggests that commu nities 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, technolo gies, 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 child hood, 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 mani festation 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.
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 indebted ness 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.
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 through out 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.
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 instal lations, Carthage has a very visible presence throughout the South. Having been
Leadership 1(3) Articles 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 leader ship 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.
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 classifi catory 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 repu tation 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
Leadership 1(3) Articles 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 (unques tioning) 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.
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 struc ture (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 satu rated 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 them selves 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 graduat ing 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 interest ingly 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 separ ation 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 intel lectual competency and legitimacy needed to sustain the respect and commitment of other employees who are also well educated. It is well understood that high perform ers 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 techno logically 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
Leadership 1(3) Articles 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, archae ologists 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 identi fied 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 justifi cation 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 top tier, 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.
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 manage rial 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.
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 & Hampden Turner, 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 discur sive 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
Leadership 1(3) Articles 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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pological 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]]