Head due north from Verona, Italy on the A22 Autostrada (think the Italian version of Germany's famous Autobahn) toward the Italian Alps and you'll soon pass through countryside so idyllic you'll think you've been transported to the Sound of Music soundstage. It's all there but Julie Andrews - villages perched on beautiful, green hillsides backed by rugged, snow capped mountains and every house with the ubiquitous flower boxes in every window. You know what else? The infrastructure - roads, bridges, signs - is suddenly pristine also, somehow unlike most of the rest of Italy. Something is different here in South Tyrol.
History informs that this region has been fought over since before World War I, and that each subsequent treaty has brought it closer to Italian rule, despite a large predominance of the population that identifies itself with Austria, Italy's neighbor to the north. The last treaty concerning governance was signed over 40 years ago, yet generations of these Italians still don't consider Italian their native language or identity. Roads and bridges look so good here because the Italian government allows this region to keep up to 90% of its tax revenues in an attempt appease the region's inhabitants. Even road signs come in two languages, German and Italian.
The lesson for leaders? Culture endures, and trumps almost everything else. Culture is defined as a society's traditional ways of thinking, feeling and reacting to resolve its issues over time. Experience tells us that culture outlives leaders, their pet initiatives, and in this case, even national boundaries. Yet it is seldom effectively addressed through conflict, appeasement, or indifference.
Culture is always a factor in leading change, and can only be bridged through respect, understanding and one thing more - clarity to all parties of how a new culture benefits. Leaving culture unaddressed is often a fatal flaw in failed change efforts.
Are you building road signs in two languages, or finding ways to bridges differences through understanding?