Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

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Engage Diverse Populations – Be a Learner

Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.

First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”

Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.

Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction. 

The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.



Growing or Stuck: how to turn experience into wisdom

What separates leaders who learn from leaders who seem stuck? Leaders who learn share three critical characteristics in my experience.

First they seek out new models (frames) from which to interpret their situation. Effective leaders understand that in a rapidly changing environment their own frame of reference cannot sufficiently interpret the full complexity of the situations they face. So, they not only gather others who have a different expertise from their own, they also find new ways of evaluating data and experiment with these taxonomies by rethinking their conclusions.

Second, they practice critical reflection every day. That is they assess the actions and the reactions/results those actions generated with a consistently disciplined approach of asking two questions. What was good about what I saw today? What was bad about what I saw today? This practice of asking dialectical questions gives them an ability to anticipate unexpected consequences a little sooner than those who don’t practice this discipline.

Third, they are always listening. I am a little surprise by how much effective leaders “hear.” The ability to be fully engaged in a situation or conversation leads effective leaders to hear verbal and observe non-verbal communication. These leaders literally listen with their eyes as well as their ears and pick up subtle distinctions in expression, posture or tone that leads them to ask new questions. In fact this ability to ask penetrating questions seems like a deep intuition but it seems to me as I see these leaders that it is not so much intuition but the ability to stay engaged in a conversation that gives them the clues they need to work with.

It is not possible to fully function as a leader without these three traits. I am often surprised by those inexperienced managers who believe leadership is the same thing as barking commands. Most highly effective leaders I see ask far more questions than they do make statements. It is this ability to interrogate reality that opens the door to deeper understanding.

How well to you listen? Do you reflect on your days using a dialectic approach or do you simply rewind your opinion, fears, belligerence thus failing to see how your own actions may be a significant part of the problem your team faces? Try these three skills – they will help you grow your leadership capacity and insight.