What Marathon taught me about Culture

Many would agree that when we talk of culture it’s largely if not entirely in context of organizations and countries or even families but running is not something that comes naturally to mind. Till a week ago, It certainly didn’t to mine.

The sound of the drum beats and pounding footsteps at the crack of the dawn on Sunday morning made me change my view. I woke up to the Mumbai Marathon! What a sight it was. Unending streams of people tirelessly running for unity, camaraderie, love, diversity and many other causes but most of all for themselves.

For many it was simply a cacophony of motley noise, vibrant colours and jostling human bodies to all running to get ahead. But I saw a lot more that day.

I saw countless people lined up alongside the road cheering the runners, dozens of volunteers hand out water to them and I saw the sea dotted with fishermen boats keeping an eye on the marathon.

What deeply struck me – wasn’t this Culture in action. After all, if culture is defined as set of symbols, rituals, beliefs and behaviours, wasn’t I seeing all of that in its full glory. What else could it be but our deep rooted spirit of sportsmanship that made us get out of bed at 5am to cheer strangers, our notion of hospitality that had us giving energy bars to folks we would never see again, our ingrained sense of oneness that had us rub knees and ankles of the runners just so they would not get cramps.

In corporate parlance, we would call this visible manifestation of Culture. This would be seen as demonstration of our Values and Behaviours, those of One Team, Honour, Collaboration, Energy, Drive, Respect and more. If that was the case and it certainly seemed like that to me, standing by the road watching this symphony of motion, why was that in an organizations, we had to meticulously craft our Values and Behaviours, bring employees to classroom to acculturate them into it, spend time and money to paint our walls with them, hard wire them into core processes such as hiring, performance management and recognition so everyone would “live them” and no one could short circuit them. Why indeed?

Is it that organizations say one thing and do another, is it we decorate our walls with one message and behave in another, is it we train for values and reward for results, is it we encourage competitiveness and expect collaboration, it is we celebrate aggression and ask for camaraderie. Is it? And expect culture to be the panacea!

As the marathon slowly started to come to an end, I saw people rush out to help the stragglers, offer them rides back home and clap equally hard for them, for indeed in great endeavours it is glorious to even fail.

By talking about Culture in hushed tones of reverence, by conjuring visual imagery of Values as an Iceberg, are we making “Much ado about Nothing”. Perhaps we should just put organizational processes, policies and practices in place which feel right – Fair to Company and Fair to Employee and Culture will take care of itself.

Meanwhile, Mumbai celebrated the victory of all its forty thousand runners, those who won, those who beat their time and those who simply ran!

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