Leading People by Understanding Community Culture

by Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM

“You have to know the past to understand the present.” - Dr. Carl Sagan

Most competent leaders understand the importance of looking to the past to guide their decision-making process. The “past” in this case may be lessons learned from the previous experiences of their company or institution, or personal experiences gained from prior employment or volunteerism.

But what about understanding your community’s past as a leadership tool?

I think this is a critical component of leadership. Villages, towns, cities, states, countries – all are framed by the collective past experiences of their residents. These experiences, in turn, define who they are and, often, where they are going.

It’s hard to read an article about the Syrian War without seeing references to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.  But often those same articles go much further back, even to Biblical times to discuss the culture and political situation facing the world.

And what’s a conversation about democracy without dropping a reference or two to America’s war for independence?

Although it may seem easy to evoke historic experiences with world and domestic discussions, the past also informs the local vernacular – beyond mere talk of historic events with the York County Heritage Trust or Historic York.

York invariably markets itself as American’s Industrial Art & Design Capital or Factory Tour Capital of the World.  Both of these slogans pay homage to the Pennsylvania Dutch work ethic and manufacturing tradition of the people who built long rifles, pottery, cigars, wagons, and even cars (yes, cars!). York is a community that proudly defines itself through its manufacturing heritage.

Leadership is about knowledge and understanding.  It’s about knowing the people that follow you, and being cognizant of the people and places that made them who they are today. Locally, leadership means understanding the culture that built York. Sometimes people say that Yorkers are typical Pennsylvania Dutch in that they are cheap and slow to change. And that can be a negative thing. Yet I look around the architecture of downtown York, and all the wonderful older buildings, and I think “This place has a lot of character.” But why do we have such a historic downtown?  Because while other communities were falling to the modernization wrecking ball of the 1960s and 1970s, we were too cheap and slow to change.

Not a bad thing when viewed in this context.

 Photo copyright Scott D. Butcher

Photo copyright Scott D. Butcher

Sagan was right – you really do have to know the past to understand the present. Why is our minor league baseball team called the York Revolution? Because locally, we still identify ourselves as a colonial town. We even have a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette celebrating what was, at best, a non-event, and at worst, a fictional event! Locals think about history and they think about the American Revolution, and the Second Continental Congress meeting here. We have amazing Underground Railroad, Civil War, and World War II history here as well – but yet our local culture identifies with the sleepy frontier town that served as the seat of our national government for nine months in 1777-1778. As a historian friend of mine used to say, York is a Victorian town with a Colonial attitude!

In fact, only recently has the local historic dialogue even included the Civil War. Although York’s fairgrounds hosted Camp Scott – one of the first army enlistment camps after the opening salvos of American’s second revolution, and Penn Park housed one of the largest army hospitals during the conflict, that history has until recently been swept under the proverbial rug. Why? Because York was occupied by the Army of Northern Virginia in the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. The controversial occupation happened after town leaders surrendered to the advancing Confederate Army, promising not to put up a fight if the town was not ransacked in return.

So what can these anecdotes tell us about the community? The people here are industrious, hard workers who pioneered American manufacturing ingenuity. They aren’t always influenced by national trends, and can be a bit tight with their money. And they take great pride in major achievements of themselves or others – but keep quiet about things that may be embarrassing or cause conflict.

Do these attributes remind you of anyone? Perhaps a co-worker or someone that you manage or lead?

A community’s culture directly influences the behavior and actions of its residents. And a community’s history directly informs its culture. Therefore, to effectively lead people you must understand why they act the way they do, and understand their motivations – which, in many cases, are the direct result of their cultural upbringing or conformity to the norms of their adopted community.

Whether you are from this area or not, it is important that you gain an understanding of this community, viewed through the eyes of a time traveler who begins a journey in 1741 and travels throughout York’s history to the present day. I guarantee that if you can view this community through its collective history – warts and all – you will be more effective in leading those people who live and work here today.


Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM, is vice president of York-based JDB Engineering, Inc.  An author of more than a dozen books, he graduated from Leadership York’s Leadership Training Program in 1996 and was named the 2010 Leadership York Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.