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How Culture Affects Our Expectations of Leaders

Gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic biases affect how we lead and follow.

All leaders have strong preferences, even about leadership, that are shaped by social and cultural location. Missiologist James Plueddemann states, “The ultimate purpose of the leadership is to bring people into full relationship with their Creator. We are created to know, love, and glorify God.” Beyond that, though, leadership style and practice are culturally located. Before we can look at how to share leadership, we need to understand the dynamics of leading, following, and inviting crossculturally.

Leading Crossculturally

What is the role of a leader? Is a leader’s job to tell people where they are going (casting vision)? Is it to delegate tasks (manager)?

While having a conversation with a young African American gentleman about good leadership, he said that a good leader would tell his church, “This is the vision God has for us, and here’s how we are going to get there.” This, he said, would create a sense of security for the leaders under that pastor. I laughed because if I had ever done that with student leaders (particularly white students), I would have had an exodus on my hands. Millennials, especially those coming from places of privilege, do not want to be told what they are going to do and how to get there. That would be a huge turnoff and maybe would even set off alarms. So, who’s right?

In an urban setting where there are many insecurities (safety, food, etc.), and family bonds are often broken due to housing, incarceration, or long work hours, the community is looking for someone—a parish priest, influential schoolteacher, or father figure—to provide stability. John Zayas, pastor of Grace and Peace Church in urban Chicago, says, “They want to know that someone knows what’s going on!” Expressions of leadership develop within the context of the leader and his or her followers. It is also anchored in values of hierarchy. The kind of leadership Pastor Zayas speaks of would be counterintuitive to my context as a campus minister equipping and mobilizing student leaders. The context or role I had was to delegate and coach them. The goal was not providing stability but opportunities to test and grow them into leadership.

These questions go back to issues of culture—not at the level of behavior but at the level of values. There are many ways to differentiate leadership values: egalitarian versus hierarchical, individualism versus collectivism, low context versus high context. One helpful tool I’ve used to help people consider leadership and culture comes from Plueddemann’s Leading Across Cultures. He overlays Henry Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Chart with crosscultural values to come up with a new Multicultural Situational Leadership Chart. Plueddemann states that expectations for leaders and followers should change in a crosscultural setting:

Effective leaders will be flexible in their style by assessing the cultural expectations of leaders and followers. As the cultural situation changes so does the leadership style. Effective multicultural followers will also adapt their understanding and expectations. Both leaders and followers must be aware of the expectations of the host culture, adapting accordingly. Multicultural leaders and followers need to be proficient in a wide range of leadership styles, and know when to use which one.

This resonates with my experience as someone who has fallen flat on her face so many times as both a leader and a follower. Imagine a bicultural Latina American working (1) under a Korean pastor, (2) leading Asian American and white young adults, (3) in China leading a missions trip, and (4) as a congregant in a black church. Can you begin to imagine how many mistakes I have made? I always tell people that once we think we’ve got it down, God invites us to live and love a totally different segment of his people—just to keep us humble.

Imagine this scenario: A worship leader from a more egalitarian culture who values getting tasks accomplished is overseeing a group of younger people from a culture who value hierarchy and maintaining relationships. The leader believes it’s his job to cast vision and set clear expectations, and assumes that people who have concerns, questions, or disagreements will let him know so that they can be addressed. The followers, however, feel it’s inappropriate to question the older leader, especially in public. The leader lays out plans for a worship set, including music, Scripture reading, spoken word, and even wardrobe coordination. He asks the group what they think and expects collaboration. None is received.

What’s the dynamic like after months of this scenario being played out? The leader is likely frustrated and feeling alone. Or perhaps the leader believes all is well. The participants are feeling neglected, even marginalized.

Following Crossculturally

As followers, we also have to do some deep reflection to identify how our culture is shaping our preferences. Researching for my book provided many opportunities for owning up to my mistakes. Plueddemann states that in some cultures, loyalty may be more valued than competency. When I read this, a light bulb went on. If it had been a literal light bulb, it could have given enough light to land a jumbo jet. His explanation shed light on a repeated conflict I had been having with a particular leader. I wanted to be valued for my competency. In order to support this leader and his ministry, I would offer to preach, train leaders, and organize job descriptions for the staff. He wanted my support, but in loyalty, not in expertise. Ministry is hard, and he wanted to know people would protect him from critics and preserve his reputation when he made mistakes.

In hindsight, I think he must have mentioned loyalty about 50 times in the years I had known him. He referred to people’s loyalty regularly and said he really needed to know people were loyal. I actually wondered why he was constantly questioning my loyalty, and I in turn, to show my support, worked harder so he knew he could count on me and my expertise. I wish I could say that I learned better, but in that cultural situation, I was a bad follower.

Inviting Crossculturally

How do people become leaders? Do we invite people into leadership? Are they appointed? Do they apply? Do they volunteer or wait to be approached?

I was at a small gathering of worship leaders trying to identify a leadership pipeline for the ministry. When I asked how the others identified leaders, a white male leader said, “We’ll know who leaders are because they will step up.” Interestingly, just weeks before in another conversation, a female colleague expressed her disappointment that she was regularly overlooked for a leadership summit that was by invitation only, and we lamented together. A male ministry partner then pointed out to me that the summit was by either application or nomination, not by nomination only. He wondered why she didn’t apply. What was keeping my friend from applying? She was rehearsing cultural and social influences that were reinforced by her understanding of Scripture. Luke 14:7–11 was in her head:

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gender, ethnic, or socioeconomic biases affect how we choose leaders. In his book on Asian American leadership, Paul Tokanaga compares Asian American and dominant American behavior to highlight how Asian American behavior is often interpreted as a lack of interest or lack of leadership skills. He says, “In an Asian American gathering, it feels presumptuous, aggressive, and even arrogant to raise a hand and say, ‘I’ll do it.’ . . . What is called respect in one culture looks like apathy in another.”

In some cultures, leaders are applauded for stepping up; in others, leaders disqualify themselves by assuming they can lead. They need a sponsor to invite them to lead. Some leaders I have worked with in my community are intimidated by wealth and education, and therefore do not see themselves as having something to contribute. As you share your leadership, consider that even your method of inviting others to the table has cultural elements at play.

I’m so thankful for all the training I’ve received in my adult life. I was taught strategic planning processes working with dominant-culture organizations who taught me to evaluate, develop vision, and build strategy to accomplish that vision. I was instructed on making SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time oriented). As a pastor in an urban context with Latinos and African Americans, I tried to lead my church staff and board through a similar planning process. I thought I had made allowances for the collective nature of the congregation as well as the flexibility needed for deadlines. I did not account for the high-context culture in which vision and strategy are more intuitive and spontaneous, and less precise and quantifiable.

Years later, I still am not always sure what our plan is, but that does not mean there isn’t one. God is doing great things, and everyone seems to be onboard and knows what is happening. It is not deficiency in my church but a difference in approach. This flexibility and ambiguity allows us to flow with the Spirit and respond to local issues, which in turn makes us effective in our context.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal is a pastor at The Grace and Peace Community in Chicago and is author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World. This article is taken from The Next Worship by Sandra Maria Van Opstal. Copyright 2016 by Sandra Maria Van Opstal. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

March31, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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