Future Reflection: The Power of Culture

Here’s the second part of a reflection on historian Yuval Noah Harari’s work for individuals, professionals, leaders, consultants, teams, and organizations. This series is based on Harari’s books “21 lessons for the 21st century” and “Homo Deus, a brief history of the future”. What’s happening in the global system around organizations? What influences might there be for you and your team?

The power of Culture

Most studies cite intelligence and tool-production as the reason why homo sapiens flourished. That certainly helped, but what really made a difference is that humans can cooperate very flexibly with large numbers of strangers, beyond their well-known and trusted family and friends.
Organizations, movements, kingdoms, and states came into existence when sapiens developed language and started to construct new realities in the last 70,000 years.

With language comes culture. Thanks to language, we live in three layers of reality: objective, subjective, intersubjective. We have the objective reality of measurable facts, we have our subjective feelings, and we have the intersubjective realm of culture. Culture is the story that we live in. The values we believe, the norms we adhere to, the stories that motivate and inspire us, the agreements about what is true, real, good, or bad. Language, stories, and culture are the basics of organizing and organizations.

Culture keeps large systems intact and enables collaboration with many strangers who believe in the same story. It’s this large human collaboration that built the great wall of China and sent people to the moon. This is not the achievement of individuals. Individuals can’t have close relationships with more than 150 people. In smaller bands, we use warm logic; we accept offers that are fair, not those that are very unequal. Yet, large kingdoms and organizations are very unequal. Why do we accept that?

The story foundation

That’s because they are based on a story that makes sense to the listeners. The story presents a hierarchy in the organization or society, giving the elite its place as rulers or leaders in the “natural order of things”. You, too, have a role in this story – albeit as a slave, a worker, a soldier, a servant. There are rewards and threats if you don’t comply: all cultures use a combination of “carrots and sticks”. Culture presented the Pharao as one of the gods, and gave meaning to your work as a slave, building the pyramids, serving the gods. The story works. But it wasn’t fun for many individuals.
Culture still provides meaning and confirms your position as a professional in a modern organization. Culture states that organizations are real, as real as things.

We see the organization as a real “thing”, but in reality, it is not: you cannot film it, it cannot suffer. The organization is a concept, an intersubjective agreement.
The organization owns buildings, a car park, products, and a logo that we can see. It employs human beings and has money, rights, and duties.
Today, organizations are fictional legal entities that own property, lend money, hire employees, and initiate economic activities. In ancient times, the gods were the legal entities that owned land and slaved, they were managed by priests. People were employed by the gods, just like you are now by Google or Microsoft, and managed by the leaders that they hired.

The monotheist religion gave sapiens a central place – and the world revived around him. In this story, good deeds lead to blessings and terrible events are caused by your sins. This religion helped to discipline people and provided a great basis for large-scale human collaboration.

As Harari says, many of the most important agents in human history are intersubjective entities: money, nations, and corporations. We don’t want to believe that our nations, our European Union, our World Bank, are fiction. But meaning is created by the shared story in which we play a role. A new web of meaning will be woven when one unravels and some entities will cease to exist.

Sapiens rule because of this intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities, values, norms, places, goals that exist in the collective imagination. This web allows humans to organize crusades, socialist revolutions, and human rights movements.

Let’s create new stories and cultures

Let’s explore our stories, as words create worlds.

  • What is normal in your culture and copied all the time? What is true and right? What story is the foundation of your organization, your country, your world view?
  • Is that story still serving you and your organization with the challenges we see coming? Should you reinvent the story? Is it empowering and meaningful? Or does it hold you back
  • What story would inspire your followers, and motivate many people to act differently? What story inspires learning and experimenting?

I hope the reflection questions inspire you. Let’s not become discouraged or fearful. Let’s find a positive perspective, and activate resilience and creativity. Let’s think about these questions for the future, and see how you can prepare yourself and your team, organization, government, community, and other systems that you are part of.
Positive leadership means leading yourself and others toward a future where we can thrive in a culture of learning, positivity, connection, resilience, and creative solutions.

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.

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