Leadership and Culture

This entry is part 13 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

There are universal biblical principles of leadership, but we must recognize that leadership does not operate in a vacuum. The way that leadership operates and is perceived is also affected by the culture(s) of the people in the church.

The Role of a Leader

The decision about who should be chosen as a ministry leader is influenced by culture. For example, in a more American culture, a person who is outspoken and assertive is often seen as the natural choice for a leadership position. But in Asian culture a person who is too aggressive might be seen as too risky as a leader. I experienced this contrast a number of times when choosing new members for the college fellowship leadership core. In order to select new leaders we ask the fellowship members for their recommendations, and then I meet with the current leadership core for discussion and prayer to come to a consensus on who should be the new leaders. On several occasions we were considering a person who was a strong natural leader but perhaps a little too assertive. While I might have been willing to let that person lead and work with them to improve their leadership style, most of the core members were reluctant to take the risk.

The expectations that people have of a leader are also influenced by their culture. Should a leader focus on caring for people in a tangible way by being “on call” to give rides, help move furniture, or do yard work? Should a leader focus on strategic planning for moving the ministry forward? Should a leader focus on evangelism? Should a leader quietly support the ministry of church members or should he be out in front blazing the trail? An argument could be made that all of these possibilities have biblical support, but which one(s) are the most important? The way that you answer that question is influenced in part by your cultural background.

Leaders and Decision Making

Few areas bring cultural differences into sharp relief as much as the way that leaders make decisions. A more American approach makes use of open debate, competing proposals, and majority rule. A more Asian approach makes use of private consensus building, acquiescence to those with seniority and a public display of harmony. Biblical arguments could be made for the value of each approach, and both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Both can be helpful at times, but both can be abused.

The problem comes when leaders from different cultural backgrounds try to make a decision together. Private consensus building is seen by the more Americanized leaders as secret political alliances and a lack of honesty. Open debate is seen by the more Asian leaders as a painful disruption of harmony and a lack of love and humility. Is deference to older leaders a denial of our fundamental equality in Christ or an appropriate expression of humility and respect?

I experienced some of these differences when we were studying Mandarin in Taiwan. At the time we were attending a small Baptist church, and we were invited to attend a members meeting after the worship service. As we watched, several proposals were brought up for a vote, and to my amazement every one of them passed unanimously! Later I realized that the decision had really been made before the meeting by discussions among the more influential leaders. Once the respected leaders voiced their opinion, everyone else went along with it. The vote was a mere formality.

Was this a beautiful expression of Christian love and harmony, or was it underhanded political manipulation? The way that you view it depends on your cultural background.

Tomorrow I will continue the discussion of Leadership and Culture, and explain why consensus is not always what it seems to be.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • How do you think that culture affects the way leadership operates in your church or organization?
  • What challenges have you faced in working with leaders from different cultural background? What suggestions do you have for overcoming those challenges?
Series Navigation<< How to Equip Spiritual LeadersLeadership and Culture (Part 2) >>

4 Responses to Leadership and Culture

  • djchuang says:

    Good post here, and your series is beginning to dig into more of the challenging issues of a cross-cultural context. So how does a leader get selected? Your article wrote about preferences and roles, but I’m wondering if you could unpack that a little more. What leadership traits are valued by both Asian and American cultures, and how does that selection process play out? John Maxwell says that “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” But what does that really mean?

  • PK says:

    DJ, thanks for the encouragement. Other than the basic spiritual qualifications, a leader must be someone who others can respect as a leader. There is a cultural factor in that. The simplest test to determine whether or not someone has leadership ability is to ask “Is anyone following him/her?”

    I agree with Maxwell that leadership is influence. But who has influence? There are traits that are valued by both cultures, but there are also factors that are culture specific. In fact, when I am looking for new fellowship leaders I ask them, “Who do people look up to as a leader?” They can answer this question without distinguishing which factors are cultural and which are universal. Still, it is an interesting question.

  • NKL says:

    1. Two things I think of. One, is S. Covey’s definition: leadership is the ability to lead people in a way that inspires trust. Trust, while not restricted by host culture, is nuanced by culture. So we have the directive leader with the big voice who inspires those from the West, but intimidates those from the East.

    Second thing is from a Willowcreek Growing Leadership lesson: Character, Competence and Chemistry. The chemistry is definitely related to culture(although for some a mix of cultures equals good chemistry while others prefer mono-culture, the key is the culture is a factor). Competence should be measured objectively and not be have a culture label. Character should be biblically mandated, but as you alluded to, we see even biblical character through cultural lenses.

    2. Before coming to be a pastor I’ve worked with old school Eastern (everything hidden behind a serene face) and Western (where we scream at each other and forget about it 10 min. later) bosses/leaders. The greatest challenge I think is too much “old school” thinking. West or East–it’s not just one way now but a blend. Senior leaders who don’t get that will always be losing talent.

  • PK says:

    Good insights on the influence of culture. Cultural background has a big impact on people’s thinking on the qualifications for and expectations of leadership.

    To measure competence objectively, you first need to have a detailed job description for the leader, but that will be influenced by culture.

    Ideally, all senior leaders in a bilingual church should work toward being bicultural.

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