38. Board Dynamics and Cultural Diversity: Part III. Power Distance and Board Leadership

All cultures develop power structures. When you grow up in a specific culture, you learn how to navigate within its specific power structures. For the most part we acquire this knowledge naturally, like learning a language. However, we also tend to assume that all other cultures have the same understanding of power structures, but this is a big mistake.

James Plueddemann in his book Leading Across Cultures devotes an entire chapter to something termed “power distance”, i.e. “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” (quoted from Geert Hofstede, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind). Some cultures possess high-power-distance values. In this case large inequalities in power are the norm, with some people holding significant power, but the majority having little power. Other cultures embrace low-power-distance values. In these cases equality defines power relationships and the culture strives to minimize the power status that various groups or people may possess.

How does power distance play out within an organization? If you live in a culture where high-power-distance is the dominant value, then people in that culture will expect leaders to possess more authority and status than followers. Often the leader assumes the right to make decisions unilaterally. So children will obey parents; employees will follow the boss’s instructions, students will accept what teachers communicate. In such a situation when a leader seeks to consult and arrive at a decision based on consensus, it may communicate lack of leadership ability.It is normal when such values are present for leaders to have special privileges and if these are not evident, again questions arise about the person’s leadership capacity.

If you have lived in a culture where low-power distance is normative, then you expect leaders to work collaboratively with teams and consult before making decisions. You expect to have voice in the operations. A more democratic model prevails. If a leader starts making unilateral decisions, rebellion will occur in some form. In these contexts good leaders are expected to break down barriers that divide. Privileges are a sign of corrupt leadership, not respected leadership.

Broadly speaking North American and Western European-influenced cultures tend towards low-power-distance values. Conversely, Asian, Eastern European and African and Latin American cultures tend towards high-power-distance values. Of course, these are very broad generalizations. Variables affecting these generalizations include education, wealth, religion, occupation and urban versus rural context. Plueddemann comments that in every country where high-power-distance tends to be normative, people tend to desire less power distance. After reviewing various biblical cases, he concludes that “Scripture seems to leave room for some flexibility regarding power distance in leadership style but not in leadership attitudes. The heart of every leader must be humble, seeking the good of others and suspicious of one’s own motives” (103).

Challenges may arise when ministry teams are multicultural, composed of people from cultures that value both high-power-distance and low-power-distance. If the members of the team do not understand this cultural phenomenon and determine to exercise great sensitivity and respect towards one another, the team will become dysfunctional.

When we set these dynamics in the context of a church board, practical processes such as decision-making may be affected. For example, individuals used to operating in a culture where high-power-distance values are the norm, may not be comfortable with board discussion that seems to challenge the lead pastor’s proposal for ministry strategy. Similarly the very thought of evaluating a leader when such values predominant will be distasteful. Further, discerning when a decision has occurred officially may also be confusing. Consensus decision-making may even feel disrespectful of the primary leader’s prerogative.

Alternatively, those board members whose experience is limited to contexts where low-power-distance values dominate, will bridle when a leader used to operating with high-power-distance values feels he has authority to make the final decision, despite what the board may say. Such board members will expect the lead pastor to be evaluated and the more thoroughly this is done, the better.

A chair finding himself or herself facilitating a culturally diverse board will need to understand these dynamics. Careful delineation of which groups in the organization speak into which issues and which group has authority to make specific decisions may prevent considerable distress. Further, having some discussion among the board members to clarify their preferred means of working together will help the board members understand each other more fully. It may even be helpful, when a decision has been achieved only after considerable conflict and dissenting opinion, to review with the board what happened and help each person to understand why that decision seemed to be so difficult. Perhaps different understandings of “power-distance” were responsible for some of the conflict.

We know that Scripture teaches us to respect one another and honour those who are entrusted with leadership. As well, Scripture is clear that we must mutually submit to each other. We are one in Christ and differences such as race, gender, and socio-economic status should not affect the way we value another believer in Christ. The concept of the priesthood of the believer is a fundamental New Testament principle. However, we also know that God has established order and commands us, as part of our subjection to Jesus as Lord, that we work respectfully with those whom the congregation has entrusted with spiritual oversight. We must adapt the high-power-distance and low-power-distance values to work in conformity with biblical principles.



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