Language, Literature, and Culture Formation

In his acclaimed work Built to Last, Jim Collins described the culture of “visionary companies.” Collins observed four common characteristics, admittedly cult-like, in the cultures:

  1. Fervently held ideology: All team members are expected to believe strongly in the company ideology.
  2. Indoctrination: The people are continually taught the essential beliefs and values of the company.
  3. Tightness of fit: There is an understanding that people without the same values or ideology should not be on the team.
  4. Elitism: There is a sense of pride and responsibility with being a member of the company.

Two of the four traits Collins observed in the culture of great companies related to their values and beliefs. A strong culture has a fervently held ideology, and a strong culture intentionally teaches people their beliefs and values. The two are clearly related. If a group of people really believes something, they cannot help but teach their beliefs to others.

If a leadership team does not have a plan to teach “our beliefs and values,” the leadership team doesn’t really believe what they say they believe. And if a ministry or organization does not really believe what they claim to believe, the culture is weak. In other words, if you don’t have a plan to teach those on your team the shared beliefs and values, the shared beliefs and values really don’t mean much to you. If leaders are really passionate about beliefs and values, passing them on to others is deemed essential.

Surely no one should have a more fervently held ideology than the people of God. Surely a company should not be more passionate about “indoctrination” than a local church.

So how can leaders practically teach and reinforce collective beliefs and values?

The Babylonian leaders were, evidently, passionate about indoctrinating people in their cultural values. When the Babylonians deported Daniel and much of Israel into captivity, they sought to incorporate them into the Babylonian culture. Clearly the Babylonians wanted Daniel and the others to be contributing residents, so they believed it would be necessary and beneficial to educate them on their culture.

The king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his court officials, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility—young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace—and to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. (Daniel 1:3-4)

What can we learn about building a strong culture from the Babylonian leaders? They taught people, even those they captured, their language and the literature.


Language is often the expression of values, beliefs, and strategy. A leadership team that speaks the same language is likely to be moving in the same direction. Speaking the same language is much more than haphazardly using the same words, which can mean different things to different people. A consistent leadership language requires constantly reminding people of the definition and meaning beneath the words. Wise leaders use language to teach and reinforce what the culture values most.

Consider the language your team continually uses. Are there articulated values that constantly teach and reinforce the culture you are cultivating?


A leadership team that reads the same works is a team that thinks together and wrestles with the same ideas. Books “all of us must read” can serve as a baseline reminder for the people on your team. They can also be used to onboard new team members because there is a spoken or unspoken leadership library that has influenced the team’s collective thinking.

Consider the literature that has impacted your team. Are there a few books that everyone must read, books that every new person would be expected to be familiar with?

Language and literature are helpful tools in creating and reinforcing a strong culture.