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The Geometry of Character and Culture

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In this essay I explore patterns and variations—and the interplay between contradictions that often emerge from this interplay. Specifically, I address the dynamics of individual character and organizational culture.

I have been a fan of the television series called Treme, which portrays the life of men and women living in New Orleans following Katrina. It is a unique series because it blends a set of strong, interweaving story lines with great New Orleans music and food (though unfortunately we as viewers can’t actually taste the food!). It is also very special for a more fundamental reason. As one of the creators of the series mentioned during an interview, Treme is all about the interplay between character and culture.

As I have thought about this interplay, I have come to recognize that masterful coaching will inevitably address both the character of the client and the culture in which this client resides. The coaching intervention must be masterful because neither character nor culture is usually visible to the client. To use a term applied many years ago by Michael Polanyi (the scientist and philosophy), the dynamics of character and culture are founded in tacit knowledge. (Polanyi and Nye, 2015) At some level, character and culture are known by the client, but they are not consciously known nor are they easily articulated by the client. The masterful coach can be of great value to their client in moving both character and culture into the client’s conscious awareness.

How is this reflective process engaged – and what exactly are character and culture? Let me address the latter question first. Character is about the enduring traits, values and perspectives held by someone. On a continuum, we can place mood at one end and character at the other end. In many ways, character is equivalent to personality, though the term character seems to imply something more about fundamental values than does the word “personality.” I will have more to say about this shortly. The most important point to be made about character is that it does not readily change.

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