Culture / Global Church

Global Leadership, Cultural Intelligence, and the Voices We So Greatly Need

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I was born into a monocultural setting just east of San Diego. My neighborhood was mostly blue collar, middle class, and white. My international travel was confined to a few trips south of the border to Tijuana. I hardly made it out of California. University and seminary studies began to expose me to more cultures, but it wasn’t until I began my pastoral work in Portland, Oregon, and taught abroad in Manila, that my world opened up.

Ever since that first trip, I am restless if I do not engage cross-culturally. Whether it is dancing with Nigerians in a morning worship, taking a fifteen-hour train ride across northern India, sipping coffee in a Bedouin tent in Lebanon, trekking through a jungle in Borneo, or preaching to congregants in Aleppo, I can’t get enough.

Each time I engage in a different culture, and teach leadership, I grow beyond my narrow assumptions. My thinking expands. I see another dimension of God’s creative work and I become a better leader. I have been a lead pastor for over thirty-three years, seven of them in Europe (where my board chair was South African, and board members were composed of Japanese, Dutch, German, American, and Nigerian). It has been my privilege to lead two strong multicultural churches for the majority of these years. I have also been a professor in a seminary, and teaching leadership has been a passion. It is a subject I have taught, and continue to teach, both at home and abroad. In every case, I am struck by the absence of a sound leadership book that engages multiple global voices, builds on a Christian worldview, and applies this to the twenty-first-century age – an age marked by a growing paganism, globalization, huge people movements, technological advances, and a growing shift of Christianity from north to south. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s evangelicals live outside of the United States and Europe. This rapid move in global Christianity toward the Majority World mandates that we do some fresh thinking.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s evangelicals live outside of the United States and Europe. This rapid move in global Christianity toward the Majority World mandates that we do some fresh thinking. Click To Tweet

If leadership is to be effective, there are commonalities and differences we must acknowledge and learn how to navigate. The following list shows how some noted anthropologists, social psychologists, and international business teachers have outlined them. Given globalization, and recognizing that cultures tend to be an incoherent jumble of influences picked up from all over the world, these are not tight boxes. There are universals and culture-based differences, as well as general norms, we should be aware of.

Differences in How We Value Relationships versus Tasks

In some cultures, the human connection is far more important than human achievement. Leadership focuses on human dynamics – the state of morale, the heart of the people, and the level of trust. People are not units. They have names, and their names represent families, tribes, and other associations. Harmony, cooperation, and flexibility are paramount. Attention is given to ancestors. In other cultures, greater weight is given to assigned tasks and achievable goals. Trust is built through efficiency and productivity. People are important, but value is placed upon performance. Things are linear and direct. Core words include execution, implementation, and goal achievement. Attention is given to events.

Differences in How We Communicate

Communication is contextual and complex. In what some define as “high context culture,” the focus is on the more immediate. People pay attention to the concrete world around them (e.g. atmosphere, smells, expressions, and body language). Everything communicates something significant. Interaction between people is less verbal; messaging is more subtle, implicit, nuanced, and layered. A leader gives attention to the physical cues – the clothes one wears, the place where one sits, and the way one greets. One listens for tones, observes postures, and notices how one says something. In a “low context culture,” greater weight is given to the spoken. Leadership is more about verbalizing concepts and ideas. Communication is more overt and precise. People take things at face value.

Differences in How We View Authority and Power

In what has been categorized as a “low power distance culture,” people assume a more egalitarian approach to social relations. There is less of a gap between follower and leader. People view the leader as one among equals, having minimal status or privilege. There is a preference for a consultative, participative, democratic decision-making style of leading. Interpersonal relationships are more horizontal and less formal. In America, as an example, it is a bottom-up society, in which leaders draw their power not from themselves or their office, but from the people.  In “high power distance cultures,” deference to and respect for the leader require a certain distancing. Leaders and followers accept that the leader has more authority, status, and special privileges than others. Leadership is top-down, hierarchical, with a more directive style. In some cases, one could use the word “paternalistic.” A national or tribal leader is viewed as a father to his family. People “sing” to their leader. Leaders draw their power from themselves or their position. In some hierarchical contexts (Japan being an exception), the leader is accorded the right to make unilateral decisions (such as in some African and Latino contexts). Those who question authority are hindering rather than investing in the process. Challenging leadership can amount to dishonor and disloyalty.

Differences in How We View Community versus Individualism

Few cultural values are more fascinating (or frustrating) for leaders in the global church than individualism and collectivism. This may be the most important attribute distinguishing cultures. In collectivism, higher value is placed on interdependence, community, and family. The interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual. Social harmony, not personal preference, is what matters. Sin and failure have both personal and corporate ramifications. Preaching is directed to the community and less to the individual. Dominating American and certain European cultures is an individualism in which a person is taught to be independent, do things for oneself, and seek personal freedom.

Decisions are based on what benefits the person rather than the group. Personal self-respect is the driver. Nepotism is inappropriate; joining is optional. Having your own space is important; group loyalty and collective interests are less necessary. The hermeneutic employed to scriptural truths has an individual focus and application.

Differences in How We Handle Conflict

Some cultures are predominantly governed by guilt/innocence; others by shame/honor; and others by fear/power. In varying degrees, all worldviews consist of one of these three constructs. Leaders must recognize and adjust, especially if they hope to manage disagreements. In a culture governed by guilt/innocence, conflict is more acceptable. Those who have crossed the line and violated accepted norms are guilty. In this case, open challenge and direct confrontation are expected. It is important to determine where there is wrong. One must take responsibility, accept the consequences, seek reconciliation, and move on. Leaders here are more inclined to be candid as they deal with the issues. A culture governed by shame/honor tends to avoid conflict for fear of losing face. Leaders must realize that the pursuit of respect, honor, and status frames every facet of life. One must live up to the ideals of the community and avoid shame at all costs. Shame means a relationship is broken. A person has lost face, and this personal disgrace might extend to one’s family. It leads to exclusion and rejection. The community uses shame as a powerful motivator for keeping people in line. In more extreme cases, dominating others is a way of bringing shame, and revenge can become a means of removing shame. In any conflict, one aims to save face and avoid any direct confrontation that might cause embarrassment. Communication is more subtle and indirect. Jayson Georges captures the difference in the first two cultures with this statement: “Guilt says, ‘I made a mistake, so I should confess,’ but shame says, ‘I am a mistake, so I should hide.’” The first focuses on what you did; the second focuses on who you are. The first cuts to the chase; the second is more of a dance. Some cultures, particularly tribal cultures like those in Africa, are governed by fear/power. Discerning leaders recognize that conflicts are less about proving guilt or wielding shame, and more about exerting power, winning the conflict. Those in authority tend to use fear to gain one’s submission and compliance.

Differences in How We Approach Scripture

Each culture will bring its worldview, its values, its way of perceiving and thinking, and its experiences into its interpretation of a text. Those of us in the West are often blind to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see naturally. It is important to recognize that no one culture has the final word on proper hermeneutics. Even if we come to the same interpretation of the passage at hand, our application may vary. In Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, Branson and Martinez note, “the biggest tension will often not be with the text itself but with the implications of the text for our lives today.”

Faithful Christian leadership requires cross-culturally savvy. Here's 6 key cultural differences that we do well to pay attention to in a globalizing world. Click To Tweet

Appreciating The Differences

Appreciating these differences can be useful in understanding and appreciating cultural values. Given the variances, effective leaders will listen for the similarities and disparities, as well as overarching patterns, that exist across various cultures.

For the past three years, I and eighteen global leaders have collaborated on a book entitled, Missing Voices: Learning to Lead beyond Our Horizons. It is a unique leadership book in that it brings together voices that are often overlooked. The writing is the result of years of leading organizations, teaching leadership in multiple cultures, and doing rigorous theological reflection.

What makes the book distinctive is its contribution to both leadership theory and practice from a global and theological perspective. Without the contribution of global voices, leadership from a mere Western perspective will be shortsighted. We will likely miss the differences associated with individualism versus collectivism, explicit versus implicit communication, and hierarchical verses egalitarian leadership styles.

Given our global realities, we need strategic leaders who possess cultural intelligence and theological discernment.

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