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The art of cross-cultural leadership

A leader’s role is never easy and leading people from different nations and cultures requires extra wisdom, humility and patience. In this episode of the Elevate podcast we hear from Edwin Fillies, co-founder of Nations 2 Nations, a ministry of Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Edwin is part of a team of international leaders of YWAM, which trains more than 25,000 people every year. This experience, combined with the diverse list of countries in which Edwin has resided, has given him exceptional insights into multicultural environments. 

The art of cross-cultural leadership

The Biblical narrative and story of redemption started in Genesis in a garden,’ says Edwin, ‘but it will end in a city, filled with ‘a great multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9). This means to say, from the beginning, God’s heart has always been for the ‘every’ and the ‘all’’.

‘Even as the world is becoming more global, it is becoming more tribal,’ he continues. ‘People inevitably link their identity to their ethno-linguistic roots. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to understand and honour that which uniquely shapes and makes them who they are.’

The importance of hospitality in leadership

For many of us the word ‘hospitality’ is typically associated with a specific act or moment of receiving and entertaining guests, with kind and generous liberality. Edwin however suggests that hospitality is something far richer:

‘It’s about cultivating a heart that is hospitable and open to others.’ In Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 5, Paul brings this concept to life through the application of a colourful Greek word, xenophilius: a combination of two words, meaning ‘strange’ (xenos) and ‘love’ (phile). Edwin explains that in this context, ‘hospitable’ literally means ‘loving the stranger’ or ‘loving the foreigner’ – in essence ‘loving what is different’.

More than a singular event or practice, he suggests, hospitality is a lifestyle and heart posture. It is an outward response to an inward transformation – a response of deep gratitude for Christ’s undeserved hospitality towards us. ‘As leaders we need to cultivate the same heart that is open for the ‘other’’, says Edwin.

Keeping unity despite differing worldviews 

Edwin encourages leaders to consider the pivotal role that culture plays in shaping the way we see the world and behave accordingly: ‘We all come with our own preferences and personalities. But these differences can be amplified when we engage cross-culturally, thereby creating obstacles to effective relationships.’

‘The mistake we often make is to judge what we don’t understand,’ he continues, ‘to make value judgments that don’t enhance what we want to build.’ All too often, he notes, we see this dynamic at play through the intersection of western and eastern worldviews. Where western cultures tend to emphasise the inherent rights and value of the individual over the collective, eastern cultures predominantly focus on the wellbeing of the community. Without proper understanding and appreciation for one another’s worldviews, these differences can foster a sense of moral superiority and subsequently build divides.

Edwin believes the key to bridge building is in ‘cultivating curiosity in others’ and emphasising the ‘mutuality of our differences’. Both cultures have something to offer, he goes on to explain. Through individualistic cultures we learn about self-ownership and taking initiative; through communal cultures we learn to celebrate the strength of the community. ‘It’s not one or the other,’ says Edwin. ‘There will naturally always be some tension in a multicultural environment but, despite our cultural differences, what allows us to work effectively together is relationship and a common vision.’

‘Instead of making value judgments,’ he adds, ‘we need to take interest in people – ask questions about where they are from…and work through the layers that help us ultimately understand their worldview.’

Knowing your people is key

Leaders need to know their people, including the moral and cultural framework that drives their behaviour, Edwin asserts. To illustrate this point, he contextualises this idea of ‘taking initiative’ – a typically ‘telltale sign’ of natural leadership within the western worldview – against the backdrop of other cultural worldviews.

He notes that people from individualistic cultures are usually high on initiative and therefore regarded as great leaders. In non-western/sharing cultures, however, it is not that simple – your right to take initiative depends on where you rank in the family, your age or your social standing. In essence, initiative is granted, not assumed – invited, not taken.

‘That’s why leaders have to know their people… if someone from a collectivist culture doesn’t take initiative, it doesn’t mean they are not a leader, they just need to be given permission,’ Edwin explains. He notes that he has seen this dynamic on a global scale where great leaders won’t say a word, unless they are invited to speak. If leaders don’t make an effort to get to know and understand their people, they will never get the best out of their teams.

‘People are never supposed to be objects to be used or problems to be solved – but mysteries to be explored,’ says Edwin. ‘Jesus clearly demonstrated this… to Him, people were never a means to an end, they themselves were the end goal. That’s why He said ‘I don’t call you servants, I call you friends’. ‘Understanding this relational dynamic is so important,’ he adds.

Practical tips on leadership

Edwin gives a couple of practical tips for those who lead in multicultural environments:

  1. Use language that people will understand, in their particular setting and context: Jesus demonstrated the effectiveness of using idioms and parables to communicate to people in a way that they could understand. Make an effort to understand the cultural dynamics and use stories and idioms accordingly to teach and train.
  2. Servant leadership transcends culture: Few things are as important as teaching leaders the value of servant leadership. Again, who better demonstrated this than Jesus himself? In addition, using contextual idioms may be very helpful in teaching about servant leadership. Maybe for the Basotho leader from Lesotho the idiom ‘a good prince lights the fire for his people’ hits home, while the same message may need slight tweaking to speak to the heart of a Swiss or South American leader.
  3. Authentic, indigenous leadership is key: Leadership is synonymous with being yourself: being comfortable about who you are, your history, heritage and culture. Leaders need to focus on training and raising up indigenous leaders who will naturally have greater impact in their own cultural context.

When leaders have cultivated hospitable hearts that make an effort to know and understand their people, whilst refraining from making value judgements, their leadership journey might still be challenging, but it will certainly come with great rewards.

To learn more about leading in multicultural environments, listen to the full podcast here.

The Elevate Leadership podcast series is also available on all other major podcasting platforms such as Apple, Google, Overcast and YouTube.

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