Reading Ademola H Adigun write on culture and development reminded me of one of the most critical case studies I read of how a major change in Culture led to a very big outcome. Many people are unaware of the extent cultural belief can influence their actions and inactions. Same as a country.
When legendary football coach Guss Hiddink was contracted by the South Korean Football Association to help develop a world class football team. He discovered something only an outsider can discover which highlights the importance of the “Outsider Perspective” and why some organizations resort to bringing in outsiders to be able to drive growth and achieve set goals.
The first shock for Hiddink was that players who were selected for the national team were not selected based on the usual criteria which is their present state of sporting performance. Rather selection for the national team was based on seniority, and those that are more popular among the football association.
Hiddink finally discovered that such practice was influenced by the South Korean culture where seniority and authority is highly revered and never questioned. The players selected were senior players who were about to finish their career and thus players who had an important status. These standards however, would not fit the requirements towin at the international stage.
He also discovered that during training, and real games, younger, more talented players instinctively pass the ball to senior players, even though the younger ones could achieve more with the ball. The most shocking was that younger players deem it an affront to score goals when there are senior strikers within the 18yard-box, so instead of scoring, they would prefer to pass the ball to their elderly team mates. Expectedly, they did not win one single match prior to the2002 World Cup.
Hiddink told them that this would not work, and if they want him to bein charge, he must do away with such an archaic system. Within a week or so, he became the most hated man in South Korea, and this affected morale and productivity.
He insisted on a cultural re-engineering and they reluctantly agreed. And when the 2002 World Cup started they performed spectacularly, finishing 4th in this tournament. It was a surreal achievement for a team that had to work so much to improve and that was not expected by observers to pass the group stage.
Years ago, I read about The Asiana Air Crashes and Cockpit Culture from an article by Malcolm Gladwell which he subsequently published in his book, Outliers. It was a time The Korean Air was regarded as the worst globally. Gladwell said Korean Air’s problem at the time was not old planes or poor crew training. “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical,” he said.
“You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.” he added. That’s dangerous when it comes to modern airplanes, said Gladwell, because such sophisticated machines are designed to be piloted by a crew that works together as a team of equals, remaining unafraid to point out mistakes or disagree with a captain.
Korean Air embarked on one of the most exhaustive top down management and structural changes in aviation history. The results were obvious.
Similarly, Gladwell assigned blame for the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York, to human error caused by cultural differences. The plane ran out of fuel while circling JFK, leading to 73 fatalities. The pilots of the Colombian airline did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel, wrote Gladwell.
Gladwell argued that in Colombia, as in Korea, cultural norms tended to dictate that people avoid directly questioning authority—in this case, the authority of controllers who had asked the Avianca plane to keep holding.
In Nigeria, some cultures deem it sacrilegious to question authority figures, be them political, traditional or even religious and business. That same cultural attitude is why some take personal offense at any call for accountability from a leader. Those in authority know this, and they enjoy that leverage.
That is a major reason why we are where we are. Our cultures are neither progressive focused or productive minded. Without a deliberate cultural reengineering, we are going nowhere. We hate changes to cultural practices and beliefs. “It is our culture”, even when such leads us to the valley of death. But culture should be dynamic, well, not in Nigeria.
Kelechi Deca writes from Lagos