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Leading Across Cultures
Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church
James E. Plueddemann
IVP Academic, 2009, 230 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-2578-3
Jim Plueddemann is chair of the mission and evangelism department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He previously spent a number of years as a missionary educator in Nigeria, taught at Wheaton Graduate School, and served as international director of SIM. Leaders from around the world are partnering in ministry but there is continuing frustration from the clash of leadership expectations originating in cultural values. We are often blind to our own hidden assumptions and others are blind to theirs. Jim draws on biblical reflection, cultural research, and his own experience to develop principles and practices for multi-cultural leadership.
Part I. Multicultural Leadership in the Worldwide Church. In this section, Jim gives examples of the joys and challenges of working and leading cross-culturally.
Chapter 1. Leadership for a New Day in World Missions
“I’ve heard youth pastors tell their mission team, ‘Just be yourself, and everyone will love you.’ This is a formula for crosscultural disaster.” (21). Everyone is doing missions. Is this “the democratization of missions” or “the amateurization of missions?”
“The slogan ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ has become a reality where missionaries are sent from nearly every country of the world into hundreds of crosscultural settings.” (25)
“The very concept of ‘partnership’ is loaded with cultural expectations that can puzzle both sides of the agreement.” (26) “…we must look afresh at hidden assumptions about cultural values regarding leadership while we pursue biblical principles that affirm and challenge these values.” (28)
Chapter 3. Why Crosscultural Leadership?
“Missions is the crosscultural task of making disciples of Jesus.” (47) “The ultimate vision is God’s glory in the worldwide church….” “The path… [includes] five stages: pre-evangelism, evangelism, church planting, leadership development and partnering in world missions.” (47) “Leadership development has always been at the heart of God’s redemption plan. Jesus taught and healed the sick, but his lasting ministry came from the training of the twelve disciples.” (55)
Part II. Leadership and Culture. This section summaries research on the impact of culture on leadership worldviews, values, and practices.
Chapter 4. Leadership, Cultural Values and the Bible
“An understanding of cultural values and biblical leadership principles may not guarantee harmonious relationships, but it is a healthy first step.” (64)
1. Uncover your own unconscious cultural values. We unconsciously assume everyone thinks like we do. They don’t.
2. Discover the cultural values of others. Realize that others also hold values they naively assume to be universal.
3. Look for biblical principles of leadership in all of Scripture. Go beyond finding verses that support your style. Look for a synthesis of principles. Too many leadership books are secular books with verses.
“The image of God can be found in every culture, but the effects of our depravity are also evident. Leadership styles in every culture have the potential of reflecting good or evil in the heart of the leader. Leaders in every culture tend toward the sin of pride.” (65)
We should view our own assumptions with suspicion but neither should we romanticize leadership styles of other cultures.
“The worldview of a culture describes deep philosophical assumptions about the purpose of life and the nature of reality. Cultural practices are the externals, the things we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch: architecture, music, food, clothing, language, transportation and hair style. But in between are values, cultural ideals that link abstract philosophy to concrete practices. For instance, if the worldview of a culture is materialism, we might observe the practice of people in a hurry, doing a lot of things to make money. Tying together worldview and practice we could hypothesize inner values of efficiency, time as money, and business goals trumping personal relationship.” (71) “From my experience, the greatest difficulties in multicultural leadership arise from tensions growing out of internal values.” (71)
“Globalization might make us look more alike on the outside, but localization reinforces the deepest inner being of our identities.” (73) “We may think we understand leaders in other cultures when in fact our ignorance can cause serious misunderstandings.” (73)
Chapter 5. Leadership and Context
Some cultures tune in to subtle innuendoes of meaning and others don’t. “A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.” (78, quoting Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall) “In low-context cultures, people pay special attention to explicit communication and to ideas.” (78) They are immersed in the world of concepts, principles and ideas. “Tension and confusion between cultures arises in the hidden messages enfolded in the context. Low-context communication can seem cold and uncaring to people in high-context cultures, and high-context communication can seem baffling or even dishonest to idea-oriented people.” (79)
“Direct communication seems to be the proper way of handling conflict in a low-context culture, but it can bring shame in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to speak truth directly rather than seeking to protect relationships. In high-context cultures, truth is spoken in much more subtle forms, seeking above all to preserve relationships.” (81)
Chapter 6. Leadership and Power
“Some cultures assume a large status gap between those who have power and those who don’t. In these cultures, both leaders and followers assume that the power gap is natural and good. These societies are called high-power-distance cultures.” (92) The leader has special privileges and can make unilateral decisions and expect unquestioned obedience. (95) Low-power-distance cultures expect a more consultative approach to leadership. The leader is one of the team.
This often results in conflicting expectations for cross-cultural partnerships, sharing resources, and multicultural teams. “Power distance is a theological and practical paradox. We are often reminded in Scripture both to respect those in authority over us and to submit mutually to one another….” (107)
Chapter 7. Leadership and Individualism
Does the community serve the individual or does the individual serve the community? If you work on a ministry team, do you expect to fit into, report to, and serve the ministry of the team? Or do you expect the team to serve you and assist your ministry? Does the team leader make the decisions or is that person just one of the team?
In collectivistic cultures harmony is important. A public show of displeasure results in shame and must be avoided. In an individualistic culture, personal self-respect is a driving force and a person’s conscience makes him feel guilt. An understanding of the role of the team may differ radically between cultures and misunderstandings arise when individualistic leaders motivate by praising the individual in a collectivist culture.
In a collectivist society, an employer hires from an in-group someone who gives loyalty for protection. The relationship is one of family. You would not dismiss a person for poor performance any more than you would dismiss your child. Evaluation measures the group, not the individual. The task is not more important than relationships. Collectivism exhibits a sense of belonging and living for others. But it creates an us-them mentality wherein one respects his own family or group but may treat those outside as inferior or as the enemy.
Chapter 8. Leadership and Ambiguity
“For some societies, ambiguity is a serious problem… Leaders…avoid uncertainty by attempting to predict and control the future. They set precise goals, make long-range plans, schedule appointments, design contingency plans, purchase insurance, make to-do lists and develop thick policy manuals. But not every society fears uncertainty. Leaders learn to live with ambiguity and with a laid-back attitude toward life. Communities with little desire to avoid uncertainty are puzzled by the stressful ways of those who do. On the other hand, leaders with a low tolerance for ambiguity can’t understand the ‘whatever will be, will be’ attitude toward life.” (128-29) Scripture supports both trusting and planning. It is helpful to see the dilemma as fruitful tension.
Organizational structure reflects uncertainty concerns and becomes an issue when partnering among different cultures. Greater decentralization is required for multicultural organizations. However, too great a decentralization risks losing the vision and core values. There is often a mismatch of values between those setting specific goals and those they seek to serve. Goals framed in terms of purpose and a broad vision may be more suitable than those with projected numbers and dates. The fastest growing churches in the world don’t set precise goals and numerical criteria. The values of each culture have strengths and weaknesses.
Part III. Contextualizing Leadership. This section describes a model for integrating theology with leadership theory. Those who have studied under Jim will recognize the Frankena boxes.
Chapter 9. A Theology of Leadership
Multicultural leaders must be able to shift their leadership approach according to the situation. Too often they assume their cultural assumptions about leadership are both biblical and universal. “Cultural insights describe what the leadership values are, but theology tells us what they should be.” (157) We look to Scripture for the purpose, worldview, goals, methods, and practice of leadership. The ultimate purpose and worldview should be similar in all cultures. Cultural differences should show up in goals and methods.
Purpose. “Godly leadership exists to promote God’s ultimate purpose for the individual, the world and himself.” (159) However, we tend to let other values slip into the purpose category. “The final evaluation of leadership and of organizations is whether our efforts, programs, finances, structures and leadership style bring glory to God?” (161)
Worldview. “All the problems in the world are directly or indirectly caused by sin, and Jesus is the only solution to the sin problem. Poverty, war, greed, oppression and sickness are the result of the fallen world, so the most competent leader in the world cannot solve any major problem without the gospel of Jesus.” (163)
Chapter 10. A Theory of Leadership
A theory is a mental picture of why things work the way they do. Some are informal guesses. “Excellent leadership theory must grow out of good theology and be echoed in the actual practice of leadership.” (171) “Possibly the greatest temptation for leaders is to turn a secondary task into the ultimate one.” (174) “Older leadership theory assumed that the work of leaders was to accomplish a task through people…but…Effective leaders use the task to develop people.” (179)
“The majority of books on leadership, both Christian and secular, teach techniques on how to grow the organization, without taking the time to reflect on the eternal task of developing people.” “Focusing on methods divorced from theological reflection is hazardous.” (181) “Because of vast cultural differences, it is not possible to describe methods of leadership that are appropriate in every culture.” (183)
Part IV. Global Leadership in Practice. This section applies biblical and cultural insights to practical issues in missions.
Chapter 11. Developing Vision and Strategy
“The greatest danger for any organization…is that leaders will lose their vision while becoming proficient at strategies…. Too often the activity replaces the outcome; the strategy replaces the vision.” (187)
Jim presents three leadership metaphors. The factory metaphor is an assembly line representing the behaviorist model with high value on precision, quantitative goals, predictability, efficiency and control. We aim for what we can measure. The wildflower metaphor emphasizes intuitive personal experience, emotions and dramatic demonstrations of God’s power. It is a go-with-the-flow approach. The pilgrim metaphor pursues a vision with a sense of directions but allows for unexpected twists and turns and serendipitous opportunities.
In visionary planning the leader must a) collect and focus the vision, b) examine the situation, and c) make sure that every strategy contributes to the vision in light of the needs and opportunities of the situation.
“Vision comes through the study of Scripture, prayer and dialogue. It comes through eyes of faith, glimpsing a picture of the future when God will fulfill his purposes. It originates from Holy Spirit-motivated passion to follow God’s vision. Vision is from God and is a faith-picture of what could happen in the lives of people if God were to pour out his blessing.” (192)
The situation is where we are now. Do our programs help solve real and important problems in our present situation? Leaders must be realistic. The situation is always changing. Therefore programs need to change.
Strategy is how we get there, like stepping stones across the river. The vision is the far shore. There is a natural tendency for strategies to migrate into the place of vision.
“The pilgrim leader challenges high-context people to work toward a more definite ‘faith picture’ of results, and encourages the low-context leader to be more open to unexpected outcomes. He or she will seek to sharpen the strategic focus of high-context leaders, while helping low-context leaders to be more open to unfolding opportunities resulting from serendipitous changes. The pilgrim leader will help low-context team members to appreciate insights from an instinctive analysis of the situation, and help high-context team members to appreciate insights from a more objective analysis of the situation.” (199)
Chapter 12. Developing Global Leaders
“Jesus spend three years on earth developing disciples, or followers—not leaders.” (200) Even the best seminary education plays only a secondary role in developing leaders. The gifting of the Spirit and leadership experience are the primary means for developing leaders.” (202) “It would be absurd to expect that a foreign ‘expert’ could teach a leadership course in Nigeria without an understanding of the traditional cultural assumptions about how leaders are developed.” (204)
“The primary stimulus for human development is problems—life challenges and situations that don’t make sense. Disequilibration is the motor that drives leadership development.” “We develop when our world is shaken, when our comfort zone of certainty is challenged.” (204-05)
The most influential leaders have the widest horizons. One of the primary tasks of leadership development is fostering the growth of wider perspectives. “The global-centric leader will look out for the good of the individual, family, clan and nation, within the context of the bigger picture.” (207)
In any culture four steps help develop leaders: “Seek out people with high leadership potential. Assess their current strengths and weaknesses. Challenge them with tasks that are slightly beyond their comfort zone. Support them in the tasks.” (208)