Victims of one’s own culture: Why many Ethiopians aren’t leaders?

The theme of my speech at a community empowerment event organized by Jantilla on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 in Silver Spring, MD at DoubleTree by Hilton hotel was “Leadership in the 21st C”. Last week, I wrote a follow-up article concerning one of the reasons why we Ethiopians don’t have as many leaders as we need. If you have missed the article, check it out from this link: “What is the primary reason that prevents many Ethiopians from becoming leaders?”

In that article, I shared how the way leadership is defined discourages many from taking lead in the area of their passion. In this sequel article, let me share with you another reason that prevents many Ethiopians from becoming leaders, from playing their fair share in transforming our country. In my book I quoted in the previous article- “Redefining Leadership”, which was published in 2011, I pointed out four major barriers that keep many at bay from claiming their birthright of leadership. One of the four reasons is culture. During the Q&A session, we explained how our culture doesn’t incentivize outward looking individuals and how this, in turn, discourages many from going out to take leadership initiatives to advance the cause they care about. Rather than recounting what I said at the Jantilla event concerning the impacts of culture, I thought to share with you an excerpt from the above-mentioned book to show you how many people are victims of their own culture:

“Culture is simply the collection of beliefs and values a given society or organization reflects collectively. These shared viewpoints, principles, rules, and behaviors bind stakeholders together as they live, work, and fellowship together. Culture is an environment that nurtures and shapes the various personalities of those who dwell in it. As a person with a medical background, let me give you a metaphor using culturing microorganisms in a laboratory to explain how a nurturing culture is. First of all, each microorganism requires a certain dose of feeding substances and composition of some chemical compounds. Using media such as plates, cultures are built in the lab to harvest some useful microorganisms. The final nature of a given organism is dependent upon the content of the culture it was fed.

Likewise, we are the products of those cultures (s) that fed and nurtured us. For that matter, the progress and competitiveness of organizations and nations depend upon their cultural elements. For example, Harrison & Huntington compared the economic data of Ghana and South Korea in the 1960s and found out that these two countries were having similar GNP and almost on an equal footing. However, after some decades later, South Korea became an industrial country with lots of economic success. The authors attributed this contrasting difference to South Koreans cultural values, which embraced ideals such as working hard, educating their citizens, investing, and promoting discipline, and the likes.

Whether it was the hunting-culture or today’s cyber-culture, culture shapes the personality of the individual as what he eats and drinks shapes his physical appearances. Culture plays a significant role in cultivating the individual who would have gone nowhere without the collective knowledge, identity, and guidance he has got as he grows from nobody to somebody. Throughout the years, we are fed and cultivated to become who we are today. Our thinking patterns, decision-making processes, and the way we behave and act deal with time, relate with others, interact with nature, view the future, perceive the invisible world, etc. are highly influenced by our respective cultures.

Though at times we may have counter-cultural stands and refuse to get molded all the time, the sum total of who we are at present is the product of those cultures we have been exposed. We should be grateful for the opportunity we were given to find ourselves embraced within those environments that finally helped us on our way up. We started naked, alone, and empty, and look at where we are now. We read the books, observed the arts crafted, used the system built in a given culture, and so on. Therefore, we owe our cultures. Yet, culture plays some negative roles against individual uniqueness and leadership.

If you don’t wrongly mistake me, almost every culture has some elements that discourage individual uniqueness. Some cultures, especially those individualistic, produce many unique individuals while others discourage individual uniqueness altogether. I call the latter communal cultures that are common in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. In these cultures, individuals are ‘forced’ to group thinking. Very few break through and become leaders of their unique destiny while the majority is led into lifetime obscurity in the name of showing loyalty for group identity and destiny.

Though communal cultures discourage individual uniqueness and leadership the most, almost all other cultures within the individualistic culture have some cultural elements that undermine individual uniqueness and leadership. There are cultural myths, taboos, and sayings that discourage people from taking leadership. Let’s look at some sayings from representative cultures.

In my country, there is a saying: “Silence is gold”. There is a similar saying in Spain: “A closed mouth catches no flies”. Without talking, there is no way one becomes unique and takes leadership initiative to share with others his message and vision. These kinds of mottos are disincentives for individuals to go out and pursue their uniqueness through leadership. There are similar myths in western cultures too such as “Don’t blow your own horn”. In the Far East, “The nail that sticks up will get pounded down”. In the Middle East, “Woe to leadership, for it buries those who possess it”.

Surrounded by the noises such as the above and many similar discouraging myths, since childhood, it is very hard for many to venture and go out to pursue their uniqueness by leading their own destiny towards fulfillment. As leading is considered making noise, self-promoting, troublemaking, we can imagine how many individuals find no incentive to claim their uniqueness, communicate that to their respective peers and communities, and stride forward to bear the fruits of leadership.

What is tricky about culture is that many of us may not even know that the way we think, the pattern of our behavior, the way we decide, and act is the result of our cultural orientation. We may not question those things that don’t promote individual uniqueness and allow us to claim our birthright of leadership and lead a distinct path towards fulfillment. These things operate at a deeper level without much awareness and control from our conscious side of the brain. That makes it a very dangerous barrier against leading an original life and pursuing a distinct path.

The frustrating thing is that the majority in a given culture defends the above discussed and similar counterproductive myths, taboos, and sayings without questioning and knowing why they were installed in the first place. This reminded me of the most popular psychological experiment of Harry Harlow’s. This experiment involved a couple of monkeys, a banana, a stair, and cold ice water spray. The banana was hung on the ceiling and the stair put under it. When one of these monkeys stepped on the stair to reach the banana, all of the monkeys were sprayed with cold ice water. After a couple of trials with the same brutal cold ice water sprays on all the monkeys, the monkeys developed group-thinking and stopped trying. Not only that, they attacked newcomers who tried to step on the stair even when there was no more cold water spray. This continued even if all the monkeys who witnessed the cold-water spray firsthand were substituted with new ones.

The insight from this experiment was that even if the initial monkeys substituted with new ones, which hadn’t been there when cold ice water was sprayed, continued to attack newcomers who tried to get the banana. What these monkeys knew was that they were beaten the first time they tried even if they didn’t know why. They also watched while other newcomers were beaten. Soon after, they joined the group-thinking and started to defend the banana from newcomers even if they didn’t have any clue why this beating started in the first place. The same with culture; people zealously defend unproductive cultural myths without knowing why they were installed in the first place. I have been beaten and watched others beaten because of similar group-thinking without fully understanding why these group-thinking were put in the first place. What I am saying here in this section is that ‘there is no more cold ice water spray in place that we should stop beating one another but rather let’s enjoy the banana’…”

Knowing how many people are blindly loyal to their respective culture, I don’t expect a lot of people to immediately break through cultural barriers to taking leadership initiatives just because they read this article. This is my hope, however, that this article sparked curiosity in you if in case you’re one of the victims of your own culture; if in case, your culture discouraged you from venturing out to take lead in the area of your passion.

Don’t misunderstand me. Yes, communal cultures like ours have so many great cultural attributes we need to keep and promote. However, our culture needs to be reformed if our desire is to come out of poverty and enjoy sustainable development, which cannot happen without raising enough leaders at all levels. Please understand that I’m not suggesting copying and pasting a foreign culture from somewhere. That doesn’t work. I’m talking about indigenous reform- reforming the existing culture by keeping what has been productive and substituting those cultural attributes that have been counterproductive without losing our Ethiopiawinet.

Countries like Ethiopia must pass through a deep change to enjoy prosperity, stability, peace, and harmony. Unfortunately, deep change is impossible without cultural reform. The culture we have had brought us this far. If we would like to go somewhere better than where we have been so far, we don’t have any other choice but to reform our culture so that it empowers us to have the right mindset, attitude, discipline, principles, and standards, which in turn enable us to transform Ethiopia once and for all and in one generation.

Remember the metaphor I shared above. A given organism is a product of the culture that fed it. Using one and the same bacteria but two different cultures, you can harvest two totally different bacteria colonies: A very deadly bacteria that can be used as a deadly biological weapon, and another benign bacteria that can be used for vaccination. The difference between the two is the culture that nurtured them.

Culture- whether individual, corporate, or societal, matters. It’s one of the most important competitive advantages. You cannot experience true and lasting transformation without reforming your culture. Period. Deep change that doesn’t entail reforming the existing culture doesn’t lead to somewhere better.

Let’s reform the culture that predisposed us to the troubles that inflicted us for decades, if not for centuries. Let’s create a culture that nurtures our people and enable us to defeat poverty, despise corruption, incentivize cleanliness, promote hard work, embrace discipline, and encourages excellence and quality. Let’s have a culture that allows our people to identify their uniqueness and venture out to take lead to serve their respective community with leadership excellence in the area of their passion. Ethiopia cannot compete regionally, continentally, and globally successfully without tapping into the full potential of her people. Sadly, no one can release his/her potential without knowing who they truly are, their unique lane and passion, and without developing some key leadership attributes. What is more? Ethiopia cannot unleash her greatness without unleashing the greatness within each citizen. Let’s create a culture that adequately produces great citizens that can transform Ethiopia into her greatness and enable her to play her unique leadership roles regionally, continentally, and beyond.

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