11 Jul What Makes Culture Thrive?
About 3 months ago, my husband, Rafael, embarked on an incredible journey. He’s just returned home for a quick breather before he goes back to complete the journey. For years he’s been wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) and he woke up one day and decided to stop waiting. It took some time to gather the supplies and prep for the trip, but once everything was in order, he wasted no time. I felt worried on the drive to Amicalola Falls in Georgia to drop him off. The AT, about 2200 miles from start to finish, is no minor undertaking, and there are real risks at hand. Most of all, I was concerned about him going it alone. He insisted that going solo was something he needed and wanted to do, but I couldn’t help but think about all the terrible things that could happen to him out there on his own.
There was a culture, ingrained in the trail and upheld by the people, despite the constant coming and going of all different types of individuals and groups.
As it turned out, my worries were mostly in vain (he has run into a few bears and had to scale some tricky paths). But mostly, Rafael has been surrounded by an awe-inspiring community of fellow hikers. He’s met people from all walks of life — ex military (like himself), a 16 year-old from Amsterdam, a corporate-head who quit the game, a boy and his blind father, nurses, lawyers, and so on. Through each of these people, and all of the people before them and all of the people after them, there was a common thread. Of course, they were all hikers of the AT, but it was more than just that. There was a culture, ingrained in the trail and upheld by the people, despite the constant coming and going of all different types of individuals and groups.
The culture is one of helping, sharing, and looking out for the best interests of the entire group. There are unwritten rules and etiquette that people somehow just knew. For instance, if you’re a snorer, you sleep in a tent away from the group rather than in the shared shelter. There is no handbook or manual or even a related Google search. The culture of the trail seemed only to be passed on from each hiker to the next. And yet it was so strong that hearing my husband speak of it felt similar to listening to him speak of the Marine Corps culture.
The truth is that it’s up to each and every individual to make a culture sustainable. While leader role modeling is important, a culture is not dependent on a leader, it’s dependent on the rituals and norms.
I love listening to his stories of the AT culture of course because I’m curious about his journey, and also because culture is my business and one of my interests. Hearing him describe the strength of this culture gave some serious gravity to the notion of leaderless culture. I see a common issue in many of the organizations that we work with, which is the dependence upon a leader to uphold the company culture. The truth is that it’s up to each and every individual to make a culture sustainable. While leader role modeling is important, a culture is not dependent on a leader, it’s dependent on the rituals and norms. When a leader leaves a company, the culture should still be expected to stand strong. Culture lives beyond a leader, it lives in each person, which is why the pervasive culture of the trail is made possible even without it being codified in writing.
People have been hiking this trail for decades and it’s never the same people, but the culture stands the test of time and lives beyond the confines of any one group. Rafael said the comradery is immediately apparent as other hikers greet you along the way and offer rations and advice. He’s been the benefactor many times of “trail magic” where people near and far from the trail bring goodies – hot beef stew in the winter or a cooler of icy sodas in the summer to share with the through hikers. They expect nothing in return. There was even a time when Rafael got snowed in the Smokey Mountains and the situation quickly became dire. He ran out of food, down to just a few spoonfuls of oatmeal, that he was trying to make last. The other hikers shared their rations of granola and jerky as well as a bit of charging power for his phone so he could call home and let us know he was ok. Rafael has the culture of the trail to thank for saving his life in a situation that otherwise could’ve easily gone south.
I marvel at the strength of this caring, collaborative, and friendly culture and wonder how it’s managed to sustain itself. No hiker has been given the AT handbook, there are no values carved into the path, just white blazes. There are no all hands meetings. The culture lives in the hikers and they pass the stories, rituals, norms along as they pass each other on the trail. What’s more the culture changes them too. Rafael shared with me that he has become more in tune with the needs of the strangers he passes, more open to sitting (and sleeping) next to perfect strangers to talk and share. If he’s down to his last protein bar, he’ll happily break it in half to share with a hungry hiker.
Culture is powerful.
A strong culture is not confined to the bounds of an office. A strong culture is not measured by the strength of the organization’s leader. A strong culture is not defined by written rules, but rather by a genuine interest in creating a positive and inclusive atmosphere that’s embodied by the people. How does your company culture stack up against that of the Appalachian Trail?
The Silverene Group is a boutique culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals. These blogs are a combined effort between The Silverene Group’s founder, Shaara Roman, and the rest of the team.