I have always been a bit of a loner. I hated group projects in school and thrived when I was given something I could take full ownership of. For me, when I hear the word “organization” or “institution”, a part of me winces.
As I continue to try to pursue a meaningful life, I am starting to understand just how vital it is to participate in organizations. I, like all humans, am not meant to go at it alone. For too long, I have equated organizations with big businesses. The truth is, an organization is any group of people gathered under a shared purpose. And in order to live a truly meaningful life, I need to find and participate in meaningful organizations.
Character and Culture
If the key to victorious living in my personal life is developing character, the key to a thriving organization is culture. Said another way: culture is the character of an organization.
We often talk about the effects of culture and whether an organizational culture is toxic or healthy. But we do not do a good job of defining what culture actually is, much less how to build it effectively. We know it when we see it; we sense its effects. But we seem to think it is just something we inherit, someone else’s responsibility.
If personal character is about discovering my values and measuring how consistently I act according to those values, why wouldn’t the same be true in a communal setting? What we call culture is the expressed values of an organization (and the structures, attitudes, and behaviors that reinforce those values. You can see what an organization values by observing what they treat with honor and what they treat with scorn.
All of this works under the same design as stewarding personal character. It is just more complicated because there are more variables at play.
Character is an essential aspect of who I am. It might be synonymous with “who I am”. If this is true in a private, personal sort of way, there has to be something similar in a communal setting. This is what culture is.
Therefore, in order to truly live a life of meaning, I need to find ways to a) intentionally build and develop my personal character and, b) participate in building a healthy culture within the organizations to which I belong.
I spent so much time thinking about character as something core to who I am and the culture of organizations as something foreign and external. The truth is they are much more connected. My character is only half developed if it does not find organizational cultures to which it can align. And my influence on organizational culture will be tainted if I am not stewarding my personal character well.
All of this to say that character and culture are the two dance partners of a meaningful life. Private and corporate. Caring for the internal parts of me that I can control and participating in/influencing those communal structures that allow me to be a part of something bigger than myself. I need both. Each is necessary for a meaningful life.