Your cultural bias DICTATES your first emotional response to a new form of leadership
My mom did not like whining*. My two older brothers and I have laughed for years at the memory of Mom getting that fierce look on her face and then flicking us right in the lips with her finger if she caught us whining. She would look us right in the eye and say, “You may be angry, you may complain, but you may not whine.” Seriously, try popping yourself in the lips to see just how well that gets your attention!
I also remember that she was very efficient in emergencies. For many years she served as an emergency room nurse. While that had some upsides, the downside of that, of course, was that if one of us started crying, she would go into crisis mode and go straight to the heart of things:
Mom: Are you bleeding?
Me: (sniff) No…
Mom: Do you require medical attention?
Me: (sniff, sniff) No….
Mom: Why are you crying?
Me: (awkward pause) I don’t know…
Mom: Well then, stop it.
Now, this is not to suggest my mother was lacking the maternal instinct or capacities. She was warm and kind to so, so many people. She genuinely cared for us. In fact, she was occasionally irrational in her defense of us. But she had a real displeasure for men who were full of self-pity or weakness. Mom walked past me one time when I was being super-lazy and kinda whiny as a teenager. She asked what was wrong. I was feeling sorry for myself (over a girl), and she said in mid-stride, “no wonder she doesn’t like you…try acting like a man.” Ouch. My Mom was interested in her boys being strong. Add my Dad into the mix, and you get an idea of some of my upbringing. Phrases like pony up (and other less-appropriate phrases) were just part of the lifestyle. My brothers and I had boxing gloves, and we were allowed to use them. I sometimes joke that instead of a “fight-or-flight” reaction, I have a “fight-or-fight-meaner” kind of experience.
Now there was another element to this. Because I loved my family and had so much respect for my parents, I was proud of our heritage and our way of life. We were not financially successful, but our way of life felt authentic and in-line with the entire corpus of Louis L’Amour books on the shelf and the stack of John Wayne videotapes that grew as the years went by.
When I left home, that was the paradigm I had for what a person should act like. This was the model I had imbibed from an early age. But when I got to college, I started coming into contact with people who were so very different. I honestly didn’t know what to do. The introvert in me just avoided the issues (even though I was intensely curious), and I also had to learn to deal with a host of emotional issues I had been avoiding. But here’s where it got really difficult: I was asked to lead others—uh oh…
Like all young leaders I started with what I had—and I made some terrible decisions in the midst of God using me anyway. However, I soon realized that I was fairly one-dimensional in both my understanding and expression of leadership. Really, I had never questioned or thought through why I believed the things I did. I had, like virtually everyone, looked to the leaders I knew (parents, coaches, and community leaders) as my examples. But my failures and stresses forced me to start a journey to try and understand leadership per se. I began reading anything about leadership that was recommended by leaders I respected. I read and asked questions about leadership all the time! But I still had so far to go.
The most significant turning point in this journey came while I was in graduate school at Wheaton College. I took a class on cross-cultural leadership with Dr. Robert L. Gallagher. He pushed me to start thinking of leadership in new ways I had never dreamed of. In another class, Dr. Scott Moreau asked us to reflect on our own “cultural myths.” The word “myth” is cowboy talk for nonsense. I felt offended. Then he explained that “cowboy talk” is just one cultural form among so very many. Oh, so humbling… These two men challenged me so deeply about my own self-perceptions and about what I thought “ought” to happen in leadership. My own cultural bias dictated my emotional response to a different form of leadership! And I learned that I was responding out of hurt rather than clear thought and love. As the old saying goes, “The fish is the last one to understand the concept of water.”
Fast-forward to our team office in Mexico City. I had been reading a book about emotional IQ and leadership. I shared a particularly relevant thought to one of my teammates. It was received in a less-than-impressive manner. He directly challenged me that day to base my leadership thinking off of the Bible first and western ideas of it later. That day I began a process where I read the Old Testament twice and the New Testament four times and I marked every single instance of leadership, management, logistics and use of power in the entire Canon. That took two years. During that study I took copious notes as well. When I finished I realized that a great deal of what I thought GOD said about leadership was just not there. It was (in major part) just my culture… Well… nuts.
Once again, fast-forward on my timeline to the basement in one of the buildings at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. I was in my third year of doctoral work, and I was learning about leadership theory from one of the best: Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Glanville. She (and another professor named Dr. Alan Weaver) were REALLY working me over about leadership. I finally began to put together some of the questions I had had for so many years. As I learned about how to determine things that are supra-cultural vs simply mono/multi-cultural I began to learn about leadership in it’s most basic form. Wow…the light bulbs started flashing.
At this point, if you are still reading, you either have way too much time or you care really care about leadership. I still write and think about it because of the deep, deep needs that our nation/world face today. I don’t want to wait on the sideline wringing my hands, lobbing the theological pot-shots at those who disagree with or frighten me. My heart and energy are for the good work of Christ and His Kingdom and because of that, I want to go forward and be helpful. I suspect you do too… So what’s the point of this particular ramble?
1. We’re not as smart as we think we are
In this season of elections, tensions and overall “the-sky-is-falling” times, we need to think more clearly. We all want to be the person that is clear about what is really going on. I read post after post on social media about how stupid (x) folks are. All of us have our blind spots and while we are able to grow in Wisdom, it takes a great deal of work to do so (cf Prov 2:1-6). Most of us have adopted more of our culture than we are aware of. When, as a young man, I was thinking about how people should lead, I wasn’t thinking in terms of my cultural preferences or even what the Bible, as a whole, says about leadership… I was using my cultural bias as my barometer for what was true. The problem is that our cultural blind spots make us feel self-righteous. Which leads to the second issue.
2. We’re not as grace-filled as we think we are
I recently was talking to a friend who teaches leadership at a very high level indeed. As we were discussing spiritual formation techniques, he mentioned that one of his colleagues was a hard-core proponent of the 38 hour work-week for all Christians. This point of view comes from the idea that to know God, we need time. And when we work too hard we take from ourself the capacity for long seasons alone with God. I get it. But my friend’s point was that their particular community/context was not filled with people who had the kinds of jobs that allowed that kind of schedule; especially with the normal 10 hours of commuting time built in. He said quietly (and sadly), “Sometimes I feel like he’s being a grace-filled pharisee.” I read stuff from pastors who say harsh things about Christians who disagree with them. They rain down judgement on anyone who has a different view of the way ministry ought to be. Often, this is just our cultural bias talking. So really the way to look at this is…
3. The proof is in the fruit
I was so encouraged recently by an article about Conservative churches helping refugees despite some of the tenuous issues involving terrorism and immigration. Instead of ranting about how we should feel about all these things, they just began helping and serving and doing. A friend of mine in Joplin has had a goat roast for the last ten years to meet people from other cultures. A young leader I know in Rhode Island mobilizes their church to help all the middle schools launch their school year! If you want to find people who are living out Micah 6:8, you have to look carefully—and they’re usually not viral. Want to see leadership? Look at places that have amazing results. Most of the time, they’re not getting a ton of publicity because they’re busy doing the work. Paul’s words, “God cannot be mocked.” still ring true.
Earlier I mentioned Dr. Betsy Glanville. During my dissertation writing process, we had a small argument about the structure of one of my chapters. I was convinced I had it right. As we talked, she finally said, “I’m done talking with you about this. You need to learn to think more clearly!” She actually told me that until I read a book called, “Thinking Skills,” she was done arguing. Talk about humiliating…But I DID read it… and she was right. I was making assumptions, not making my case well and arguing from passion rather than logic. After reading the whole book I sheepishly approached her, and instead of arguing I asked her to guide me toward a better way of saying what I intended.
Humility has come hard for me. It has cost me a lot—work, time, humiliation and lots of apologies. But it mostly cost me things that I really don’t want: Pride, stubbornness, self-deceit and isolating myself. I still work hard to understand truth, and I still want to think as clearly as possible. But I hold my opinions much more lightly than before… it costs too much otherwise. Pray for me. I need it.
*I am writing in past tense about Mom. As I write this she is still alive but in a memory care facility, and she is no longer at the same capacity as before. The tense is only indicative of the era…