Changing culture the hard way

Today is Columbus Day in the U.S.  A quick check of the internet will yield a multitude of opinions about the wisdom of that selection. While Columbus certainly impacted the culture of the places he visited, there are many arguments about the impact of the change, for good or ill.

This got me thinking about what impact we, as leaders, leave on the organizations we are involved with. What does it look like to take a risk in the name of changing a culture?  We have many well-known examples, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here are a couple you may not have heard of:

casasBartolomé de las Casas – Also an explorer of the New World around the time of Columbus, his life took a very different turn. After initially profiting from exploitation of Native Americans, he had a change of heart, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting exploitation and advocating on their behalf.

San JosePeter Norman – This Australian athlete won second place in the 200 meters event during the 1968 Olympics. That put him on the podium as the “third man” in the historic protest that was part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. By deliberately choosing to side with the two African-American runners, he took a stand for culture change that eventually resulted in losing the opportunity to compete in future Olympic games. He died in 2006, and his Olympic podium mates served as pallbearers. In 2012 the Australian government formally apologized for denying him future opportunities to compete at the Olympic level.

Bartolomé de las Casas gave up a life of wealth and luxury. Peter Norman never learned how far his competitive career might have gone – and he made his choices out of the limelight, not receiving recognition such as being on the commemorative statue at San Jose State University. They both made personal sacrifices, and left a legacy of changing culture for the better.

As a leader, your behavior will change the cultures you are part of. What kind of legacy do you want to leave, and what choices might you need to make to do it?

— Dee Anne Bonebright


2 responses to “Changing culture the hard way

  1. Christina Royal

    There is a great book called “Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis & Clark’s Daring Westward Expedition” by Jack Uldrich, which fits nicely along the theme of this blog post.


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