Thursday, December 10, 2009

Leading Cross Culturally

This morning I read Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership by Sherwood Lingenfelter. I don't generally like books on leadership, but I have a certain affinity with this author so it made the stack by my bed :-)

The first problem with this book is the title, to be honest. This is a very good book on overcoming cultural and personal obstacles that hinder ones effectiveness as a leader. But the title implies that it is a missions book, when in reality, this book is far broader in scope than that. Unless, of course, you look at it as leading within the culture of the cross, but that would be a rather esoteric interpretation. The second problem with this book is that it is published by Baker Academic, which means that it will be overlooked as an academic book by many people who could benefit greatly from its contents.

Leading Cross Culturally uses real world examples of leadership failure to teach how as leaders we overlook the cultural differences in our teams at our own peril. There are great examples of how these differing value structures can result in conflict and failure of the overall operation, followed by clear explanations of how the teachings of Jesus show a way out of this morass of conflict. Where the title of this book lets it down is the fact that most of these examples can take place within our own culture, and these type of conflicts arise without the cross cultural component highlighted by Lingenfelter in this book. In fact, one of the best examples in this book is about a (presumably) american pastor who struggled in leadership at his local church due to his misuse of power and misunderstanding of the biblical context for its application.

One chapter that was particularly poignant to me was about Strawberry farmers in New Guinea, and a missionary who setup a growers co-op to bring those strawberries to market in Port Moresby. The co-op was extremely successful; however, it was sabotaged by a cultural predisposition to cheat and try to "pull one over" on the buyers. While the missionary was in place, he was able to overcome those problems with control through quality checks and accountability, but when he left the co-op collapsed due to the cultural abhorrence to confrontation. This in and of itself is where most books would stop, but Lingenfelter takes this a huge step further in discussing how the real goal of the missionary should have been to work with those farmers to understand what it means to be a new creation in Christ, and what the effect of that transformation would have to be on the underlying motivations and behaviors. In building a covenant community rather than a simple business co-op, this reversion to prior behaviors might have been avoided in the absence of the western manager. Furthermore, this would have been a more effective example of what Lingenfelter calls the combination of good news and healing touch. In the ministry of Jesus He proclaimed the good news and provided a healing touch, freeing people from their physical maladies. In the modern context we do this by providing both the good news of the gospel and medical, economic, educational or other assistance. Each of these things on their own are good, but they do not provide the full picture.

The discussion of covenant relationships, of worship at the cross and surrender of secular power structures, is where this book really shines. Every context is different, every conflict is a complex web of personality, culture, upbringing, education, and experience. But the gospel is the same, and the call to Christian community transcends those boundaries and blocks to effective leadership. Scripture calls us to a different sort of arrangement, one in which we are all co-laborers in Christ. This does not mean there should not be leaders, not by any stretch, but rather those leaders need to work to inspire and lead in a self-sacrificing manner.

One of the great things about this book is that it does not only teach from negative examples, but provides examples of leaders who use these principles effectively. In the case of the pastor, there is even a watershed moment where the power structures changed through submission to the suggestions of others, which resulted in an increased role of leadership rather than a diminished one.

I believe there are great lessons in this book for all Christian leaders, not just ones dealing with an explicitly cross cultural context. Highly Recommended.


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