The Critical Connection between Context and Culture

Published January 16, 2019


CultureLeading Organizations

I’ve started churches, served more established congregations, and been the vice president of a half-a-billion-dollar company. Now, I am privileged to lead the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

In my roles, I have seen leaders who overwhelmingly succeed and those who phenomenally fail. One of the key differentiators of success for leaders that I have observed is their ability to create, protect, shape, and embody an appropriate culture that matches the goals and purposes of their organization.

In the discussion about culture, it is easy to make broad, sweeping statements about the need to shape culture. But good leaders go awry when they try to shape the culture into one they personally enjoy instead of the culture that is appropriate for their context.

Leaders must be adaptable and intuitive enough to know the right culture to shape in the right places and the right times in an organization’s history.

Every leader will naturally embody the things he or she believes and the values she or he cares about. And that is good and should be cultivated. But in the nuance of a specific role or a specific place, leaders must be adaptable and intuitive enough to know the right culture to shape in the right places and the right times in an organization’s history.


Here are a few factors that make leaders effective at shaping the right culture.

1) Good leaders know the value of context

Where some good culture-shapers stall is forgetting the value of place.

Location and context matter immensely when shaping culture, and I’ve often seen the dichotomy of a good leader shaping unhealthy cultures in education or church leadership. It frequently comes from successful business leaders who make the switch to nonprofit leadership. They are often hired for their leadership acumen and provide great benefits to spaces where practitioners (educators/professors and pastors/theologians) don’t have direct leadership training and years of experience. This is good for churches and educational institutions alike.

But where these nonprofit leaders often have hang-ups is when they insert a profit-driven culture into a nonprofit environment. The production-driven culture is out of place and out of touch with the moving target goals of nonprofit leadership. Success becomes measured differently, and advancing the institution becomes harder to gauge, which can be problematic for a cut-and-dry culture that is often present in successful businesses.

Good leaders keep the principles of valuing clear goals, streamlining communication, and expecting hard work and production from their employees. But good leaders must understand their landscape and adapt the culture in which those goals are communicated to match the context of an institution or organization. So, the principles can be the same, but they can be packaged with more care and nuance, especially in the switch between for-profit and nonprofit leadership.


2) Good leaders bring their value-set to contextualized cultural shaping

The value-set of a leader’s principles is crucial to keep in the contextualization of culture.

For instance, if a leader is known for encouraging on-time and accurate financial reporting, he or she should not compromise on that in a different leadership context, but the mechanisms of how that person accomplishes that (culture) can and should change with the organization with which she or he partners.

Again, where I have seen leaders drift is where they compromise their convictions in order to care for the culture.  It is a balance between the two: culture and convictions. Good organizations understand that good leaders bring convictions (and the underlying philosophical principles that underpin them) to the table. But culture is what an organization hires a leader into, and shaping that culture with value-based convictions means that a leader’s methods should adapt while the principles should stay the same.

One of the marks of good leaders is that they instill their convictions in others.

For instance, when I came to the Billy Graham Center in 2016, I valued innovation and organizational flexibility (as I had in my last role). However, I needed to adapt how I communicated those values in our team. I communicated like a vice president of a large company, but I needed to communicate like the leader of a traditional academic institution. So, my convictions and expectations for our team didn’t change, but I changed how I communicated those expectations and matched convictions with the culture that I was responsible for stewarding and advancing.


3) Good leaders invest in others and value the tension of culture and convictions

One of the marks of good leaders is that they instill their convictions in others. However, often where the miss occurs is that they also pass on their preference of culture with those convictions. This where the mentor conflates values and preferences, and those who are being mentored also do the same, rendering them less adaptable when they become leaders themselves.

Leaders who develop others that conflate culture and convictions can set their mentees up for failure when they miss the first point—the value of context. As leaders grow and invest in others, they must learn the nuance of investing their values and principles, while differentiating their preferences and the specific culture of where they are currently leading. When they can do this, they develop more adaptable leaders who can lead outside of a specific cultural context, giving them a foundation of principles instead of a full-built house of principles alongside the constricting walls of preferences.

As we lead, we must learn to differentiate between our convictions and the culture we are current in and shaping. When we do this, we will develop deeper, principled convictions that will allow us to be more adaptable in different cultural contexts and ultimately become better influencers.

About the Author
Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D.

Executive Director & Dean of School of Mission, Ministry & Leadership

Wheaton College Billy Graham Center

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, and as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America and publishes research through Mission Group. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible study. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays. He also serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries. He serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church located in Naperville, IL.