Anyone who has joined a short-term missions project is told early and often that flexibility is essential to success in another culture.  You can count on things being different than what you expect.  I’ve taught the importance of adaptability to every short-term volunteer that ever came to work with us, and we taught it again last week at orientation for long-term appointees with our mission organization who are preparing for deployment overseas.

The ability to adapt is all the more important for those who have been serving across cultures for several years.  After working hard to learn a language and understand how a culture operates, we tend to get lazy and assume that we understand how things work – until we get surprised by a new twist in the culture.

After several years of ministry in Japan, I came to understand the value of harmony and the practice of talking around a controversial issue rather than confronting disagreements head on. So imagine my surprise one day after our worship service, when my teammate sharply commanded me to sit down and proceeded with a a long list of complaints against me and my leadership.

After this uncomfortable conversation, I had to step back and process what was happening.  How long had I been doing things to offend him, and why didn’t I see the signals earlier?  Was this a natural cultural behavior – to pretend things were harmonious through years of working, but slowly let the grievances pile up until it was time to unleash them all in one apocalyptic conflict?  Was he even acting according to the norms of his culture, or was there something particular going on in my teammate’s heart that caused him to act outside those norms?

It may not be the culture that surprises us. We forget that every individual in every culture is unique; not everyone acts the way we expect them to. So no matter how well we learn the culture where we are sent, we need to see each person as an individual.  That’s why adaptability is an essential skill for effective cross-cultural leadership.

Adaptability requires a “willingness to practice behaviors that are universally acceptable, learning behaviors that are culturally specific, and minimizing behaviors that are ineffective” (Wilson, 2003).*  Some leadership skills seem to effective everywhere you go, but some are only effective in specific cultures, and some that may be effective in one culture are counterproductive in another culture.

How do we develop our ability to adapt? It starts with humility, a determination to listen well to those we serve, a heart of openness to what others are thinking and doing. If we are quick to judge, we will be slow to adapt.  Keep asking questions; keep listening to the answers.  Assume you don’t understand all that needs to be understood. Lead with your ears.


*Wilson, Meena Surie (2003). “Effective cross-cultural leadership: Tips and techniques for developing capacity.” In Boyacigiller, Goodman, & Phillips, Eds., Crossing Cultures: Insights from master teachers. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp. 269-280.

Leading teams


Is my work group a team? Am I well trained to lead one?

“A team is a group of people with a common goal that compels them to work together.”

Why is it such hard work, and at times end in painful break-ups?

Teams who put effort into maintaining their own heath will be glad they did. We recognize a good team when we find one, but how do we really get there? Experience and research have led us to identify four qualities of a healthy team: a compelling purpose, deepening trust, open communication and mutual commitment.

This is not simple in practice. It takes work to clarify purpose, get work done, all the while maintaining trust and getting along. We have found that the “little” things can make a difference – doing what I say I will do, listening to ideas different from my own, and creating an atmosphere where people can be open and honest.

Teams can and should engage in conflict of ideas and opinions, which does not need to devolve into interpersonal conflict. A well-trained leader can identify the difference, and capitalize on the synergy that comes from a team full of good ideas.



the core competency of cross-cultural leadership

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:  that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,   justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,”    declares the LORD.  – Jeremiah 9:23-24

Last week, I wrote about our tendency to equate confidence with competence.  But there is one form of confidence that makes anyone a more effective leader: confidence in our understanding of our Creator.  Knowing the One who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness is the core competence of leadership. Knowing God is Leadership 101.

Now, Leadership 101 is a class we never graduate from. The leader who stops pursuing the knowledge of God is a leader who works from his own wisdom and her own strength. That kind of leadership doesn’t have staying power. And, as any new disciple of Jesus soon learns, we never come to a precise or complete understanding of God.

But the more we know Him, the better we understand His love and grace and power, the keener our sense of His kindness, justice and righteousness toward all peoples of this earth, the more/better/keener our capacity to serve and to lead across cultures will be.


confidence = competence?

Someone who read my post last week sent me a provocative article that observes the tendency of many people in my culture to confuse confidence with competence. Those with the most passionate voices and most compelling vision are not necessarily those with the ideal leadership profile. In fact, this author notes that “most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management.”

In case you are wondering, this is not some outrageous claim nor a random comment from the edge of the internet.  This is the Harvard Business Review, and it’s substantiated by a significant body of social science research. There is a strong consensus among leadership scholars that humility is a core quality of effective leadership.

Of course, we don’t need social scientists to prove this to us.  2,000 years ago, Jesus taught and modeled how to lead effectively: The meek shall inherit the earth . . . I have come not to be served, but to serve . . . The greatest among you should be like the youngest . . . Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.  His disciples echoed these teachings over and over again: Be completely humble and gentle . . . Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others . . . All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another . . . Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

So I don’t need scientific research or modern case studies to convince me that leaders need to clothe themselves with humility and make every effort to be good listeners of those they serve.  But scholarship, empirical studies and even modern management publications can open our eyes to our blind spots.  They are just one more thing that we need to listen to.

Question: In the past few days, who or what have you listened to?  How is it helping you to become a better leader?

Lead with your ears

Post this at all intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. — James 1:19 (The Message)

I used to believe leaders were the ones with strong voices, firm convictions and inspiring visions. They were the charismatic ones who brought a crowd to its feet and galvanized a group into action. They awakened aspirations, quieted doubts, and instilled confidence and commitment.

I’ve come to realize there is another side to leadership.  It’s something that is glossed over in most of what people say, read & think about leading. It’s something that we desperately need in our leaders. It’s something that we desperately need in our churches, our teams, and our ministries.

We need to listen well.  We need to be leaders who receive others into our presence.  We need to put ourselves into a posture of openness to what others think, say & do.  We need to lead with our ears.

When leading across cultures, a listening and learning posture is indispensable.  With people of your own culture, you can make assumptions about where people are coming from and sometimes get away with it.  That doesn’t work in multicultural contexts! Effective cross-cultural leaders diligently and persistently work to understand the perspectives, values, doubts and aspirations of those around them.