Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

A theology of leadership: it always has a cultural context

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cropped-addis-ababa-week-1-0581.jpgWhen thinking about leadership through a theological lens it helps to be aware of the impact of one’s worldview on the process. We don’t think in a vacuum but in the context of the values, allegiances, and assumptions that make up the core of our worldview. So, approaching a theological reflection on what constitutes leadership is a process that requires both self-awareness and humility.

A culture’s view of power distance, certainty/uncertainty, masculinity/femininity, time orientation, and individualism/collectivism represent the factors that make up cultural constructs of what constitutes leadership.[1] These cultural factors are implicit. A practical theology of leadership recognizes (1) the cultural differences that go into defining what appropriate leadership looks like and (2) the dissonance in perspective that is certain to follow the transformative work of the gospel. This transformative work in collaborating across worldviews works both ways necessitating the need for a strong self-awareness and willingness to learn about and from others prior to making generalizations about leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

The New Testament often utilizes metaphors to lay a foundation for defining leadership. Peter, for example, writes, “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)

The use of the shepherd metaphor quickly identifies leadership as a servant role. Sure, a shepherd is in charge of sheep but her primary assignment is the care of sheep. Peter draws a picture that can challenge or affirm cultural factors that define leadership.

Some cultures maintain a strict hierarchical relationship or high power distance between follower and leader. Peter doesn’t argue the extent to which leaders and followers should relate in a peer or subordinate/superior relationship. He does insist that leaders not repress or deride their followers. I can walk onto a Korean campus and observe congregants bowing to their pastor. Is this appropriate from my cultural perspective? No, it’s surprising – even off-putting. However, in paying attention to the relationship I see the deep care and respect that is mutually given in this act. At issue isn’t the form but the transformation of values that inform the form.

Femininity/masculinity is also addressed. Who should lead? Can women lead men? The imagery of a shepherd is not restricted to male or female. Even in the Bible cultures varied in whether men or women cared for sheep. The point is that the imagery of Peter plays well to either male or female leadership roles and calls for the same approach to servant leadership in submission to God.

Good practical theology utilizes imagery as a starting point for insight amplified through cultural lenses that are both sufficient and incomplete. When cultures, even distinctly different cultures, approach the scripture with a heart to learning (the essence of discipleship), both can learn from the other and both will experience the affirmation and challenge of their cultural assumptions.

[1] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2001

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

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