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The Cultural Equation

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“There’s some good in this world Mr. Frodo-and it’s worth fighting for.”  –Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings


Long before I had ever heard of, or understood, the concept of the hero’s journey as the path to personal growth and transformational change, I was a fan of the Lord of the Rings fantasy fiction novel written by JRR Tolkien. As a child, I struggled through the language and enjoyed the variety of the characters, the thrill of adventure/danger, and, of course, the triumph of good versus evil. After all, who doesn’t love a hobbit? It was great way to get lost in a different world over the course of a long summer when I was 11 and recovering from a broken collarbone.

I became a serious reader that summer, pushing the limits of my vocabulary, and often reading way beyond my comprehension. Reading the series as an adult has the same thrill of beautiful language and adventure with powerful lessons of courage and friendship. There are also deeper themes of how power, control, and corruption are destructive, while empowerment, gratitude, and helping others when they need us the most are what create the magic in our lives. 

As I roam through a bookstore today, or more likely, my reading material choices still range from fiction adventure/thriller to leadership, history, and biography, and then circle around to just about anything that someone tells me they enjoyed or that catches my eye. Yes, I do occasionally judge a book by its cover!

Reading is a great escape into the amazing journeys of others. Often I find that while our life experiences are very different, the common themes of the human need for connection and belonging and the struggle to find acceptance are universal.

None of this heavy thinking was on my mind when I took a quick trip to my local library one recent Saturday morning. It is the library of my childhood, and just stepping through the doors is good for my soul. I had not visited in a while. I was in a hurry and grabbed a handful of books from the “new books” shelf. One of them that I had been meaning to pick up earlier but somehow never made it to my Amazon wish list was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, published in 2016.

As a Springsteen fan, I was sure I would enjoy it, thinking this would give me some insight and background on both the rock star and his E Street Band and a life far different from mine. If you have any interest in rock music, the artistic process, and the struggle of those who live with depression in various forms, I highly recommend it. It is the best book I have read this year.

I enjoy most of what I read because of the opportunity to learn something new and think about things from a different perspective. What I did not anticipate was to be so engaged by Springsteen’s understanding of the human need to connect and belong. He understands people, and he understands discontent and discomfort. He understands shame. As he says, “I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.”

This was not what I expected at all.

The timing probably could not have been better for me. I have been puzzling over some leadership challenges, trying to understand the perspective and behaviors of others, especially around disagreement and conflict. This has been on my mind recently, in combination with the ever-changing dynamic of workplace culture and the challenge of how to keep the magic of a great culture thriving through times of stress and change.

As it turns out, Bruce has the formula. He has the cultural equation. And he is the first to admit that the equation, which he calls “one and one equals three,” does not make any logical sense. According to Bruce, when it comes to a group such as his band, the magic happens when the equation doesn’t make sense. There is no check box, road map, or list of things to do to get there. You know it works by how it feels.

As he says, “One plus one equals two. It keeps the world spinning. But artists, musicians, con men, poets, mystics and such are paid to turn that math on its head, to rub two sticks together and bring forth fire. Everybody performs this alchemy somewhere in their life, but it’s hard to hold on to and easy to forget. People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three. It’s the essential equation of love, art, rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll bands. It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible….”

Wait, what? As crazy as that sounds, it makes perfect sense to me. It sounds just like the magic of organizational culture. That when our organization is at its best, when our leaders are at their best, when the individuals we work with, and ourselves, are at our best, when people feel safe and valued, and both understand and believe in the values and vision of the organization and how they fit in, one and one equals three. 

This thing, culture, is not about what people earn, or their title, or their office furniture, or the number of boxes they check off their list during the workday, although all of those thing can contribute to a sense of satisfaction. It is about how they feel and how they make others feel.

So much feeling. This is not fitting in with my Myers Briggs preference profile one bit.

And yet, for the past six years I have immersed myself in the study and practice of improving organizational culture because I have experienced the magic, when one plus one equals three, time and time again. The magic has produced both measurable and immeasurable results.

How common is an organizational culture like that? Not perfectly like that, mind you, where everyone is always happy and there is never disagreement or conflict, but where the foundation of values, behaviors, and expectations is so solid that individuals feel like they can ask questions and make mistakes without being ridiculed or shamed, and develop and grow to reach their potential?

Unfortunately, not as common as we would like. Statistics show that only 30% of Americans are actively and enthusiastically engaged at work. This means that 70% of us are either going through the motions to earn a living, or actively dislike where we work, who we work for, or what we do.

Seven out of ten workers are not feeling the magic. Really. Their equation is stuck at one plus one equals two.

I get it. The math works. That’s not so terrible, right? What if, however, instead of just an okay job, you worked someplace where you had the opportunity to sometimes to turn lesser metals into gold, just like the alchemists of the middle ages…the opportunity to change lives and create magic?

That is the beginning of a great culture. And it starts with you and leaders who are willing to put people first. Are you in? I can tell you it is a hero’s journey, and it will be worth it. If you don’t believe me, ask The Boss.

Thank you for reading. Feedback and questions or comments are welcome.

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Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at



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Wonderful article, Deb!!! Thank you so much for your talent and courage to write the most amazing articles!!


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