“There is no beauty, but the beauty of action.” – Moroccan proverb
At the heart of every nation lies its culture – a complex interplay of values, norms, beliefs and behaviour shared by its citizens. This culture serves as a mirror, reflecting the aspirations, ideals and, unfortunately, vices of its people. It is the latter factor that often sows the seeds of a toxic culture within a society. When many members of a society are driven by personal gain and power, they become unafraid of cutting corners, manipulating data, taking bribes or pressuring others for favours they are not entitled to. Their actions reverberate through the social fabric, eroding the foundations of trust, respect and dignity.
A toxic national culture can be likened to a noxious gas permeating every corner of society and poisoning the values that guide human interactions. When corruption, dishonesty and self-interest become ingrained in the cultural tapestry, they erode the foundations of trust, collaboration and social cohesion. Such a culture not only affects the way institutions function but also has a profound impact on individual behaviour. And that is the biggest illness in our dear society. Our fellow citizens, exposed to a toxic culture, find it challenging to resist the pervasive influence of corruption. That’s why it has become the norm, rather than the unusual, for people to carry out unethical practices in their personal and professional lives.
The complex interplay between a nation’s culture and the ethical conduct of its citizens has long been a subject of inquiry. The question that arises is whether a toxic national culture is solely the product of unethical leadership or if it reflects a deeper ethical crisis within the populace. We all know a nation’s culture is not merely imposed from above; it is also co-created by the beliefs and actions of its citizens. While unethical leadership certainly plays a role in shaping cultural norms, the willingness of individuals to accept and perpetuate toxic practices suggests a more intricate relationship.
That is why Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, famously stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. This sentiment underscores the power of the individual’s agency in shaping a nation’s culture.
If a toxic culture is a reflection of the unethicality of its people, it implies a collective responsibility to address the ethical crisis from within. Couple with this is the ‘Broken Windows’ theory introduced by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They argue that visible signs of disorder and neglect in a community can lead to an increase in crime and antisocial behaviour.
When we extend this theory to the realm of ethics, the toxic national culture serves as the metaphorical ‘broken window’ that normalises unethical conduct. As individuals and groups get used to witnessing dishonesty and corruption as commonplace, they internalize this behaviour as socially acceptable, leading to a spiralling effect of declining ethical standards. And in a society where unethical practices are normalised, individuals may feel compelled to conform with prevailing standards even if they personally disagree. This underscores the interconnectedness of individual choices and cultural norms, as well as the challenge of breaking free from the grip of a toxic culture.
When individuals are faced with limited options and a sense of hopelessness, they may resort to dishonesty and corruption as a means of survival. That’s why it is important to understand the factors which contribute to perpetuation of a toxic national culture. They are crucial in addressing its underlying ethical crisis. These factors include but are not limited to: economic disparities, lack of access to education, and absence of opportunities for upward mobility. Their continuing presence (or absence) creates an environment conducive to unethical behaviour.
Addressing the toxic culture crisis requires a multifaceted approach that involves fostering ethical leadership, addressing socioeconomic disparities and promoting a collective commitment to upholding ethical values. Ultimately, the journey toward a more ethical and values-driven society necessitates a recognition of individual agency and a willingness to challenge prevailing norms.
Each citizen has the power to play a role in shaping the cultural narrative of their nation; and by collectively striving for a culture of integrity and accountability, a toxic national culture can be transformed into one that reflects the inherent ethicality and potential for positive change within its people.
Ethical leadership holds the potential to serve as a catalyst for transforming a toxic national culture. Leaders who model integrity, transparency and accountability can inspire citizens to uphold ethical values. When citizens witness leaders who prioritise the greater good over personal gain, they are more likely to challenge prevailing norms and demand change.
In this context, ethical leaders play a vital role in shifting cultural narratives and reshaping societal values. Their actions send a powerful message that unethical behaviour will not be tolerated and a culture of integrity is worth striving for. Ethical leadership therefore serves as a counterforce to the normalisation of toxic practices, and thus provides a glimmer of hope for cultural transformation…
Kodwo Brumpon is a partner at Brumpon & Kobla Ltd., a forward-thinking Pan African management consultancy and social impact firm driven by data analytics with a focus on understanding the extraordinary potential and needs of organisations and businesses, to help them cultivate synergy that catapults them into strategic growth and certifies their sustainability.
Comments, suggestions and requests for talks and training should be sent to him at kodwo@brumponand kobla.com