The Complexity of Leading Well in a Globalized World
Living today in the twenty-first century means living in a postmodern, urban, global, and interconnected society. This reality leads to an ever increasing cross-cultural interaction, a diversity of experiences, and collaboration across geographical, political, ethnic, and socio-economic lines.
The flattening of the world—including ease of communication, travel, and technological advances—facilitates an increasing amount of multi-national partnerships and a great diversity within leadership teams.
This leaves many people looking for answers about how to be effective leaders in the midst of such complexity. People asking regularly:
How do I lead teams in this global environment?
How do skills and abilities translate across cultures?
What advice, training, resources exist for leading in diverse contexts?
The challenge is, while a lot of resources can be found around leadership, those resources often do not translate beyond one narrow perspective or context.
What happens when our neighborhood or immediate team is made up of people from a wide variety of places and perspectives?
How do we not feel overwhelmed by the diversity, yet live respectfully and responsibly in the midst of it?
For many of us, we are compelled to live and lead well across cultures because of our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. We want to make a global impact with our lives.
A healthy church has a global vision and acts as God’s agent of transformation and wholeness in the world. Current global realities have opened up great opportunities for the ways we as the Church can participate with God in redemptive action.
Yet, working together cross-culturally is very complex and multi-layered. Many have underestimated the depths and nuances that come with any kind of truly diverse and global engagement.
Because of a lack of cultural intelligence, efforts at working together as equals while collaborating together in the missio Dei have sometimes fallen short, backfired, failed, or caused more harm than good.
Being faced with “the other,” not recognizing power differentials, or not understanding the full context of a people and of a place, have at times contributed to the ineffectiveness of global collaboration.
Developing Cultural Intelligence
Soong-Chan Rah, writing about cultural intelligence, says that: “A healthy interaction between two disparate cultures can challenge those from each to bring out the best in both.” Yet this kind of synergism takes lots of time, effort, and the kind of awareness and cultural intelligence that is not gained in a quick five-day visit or over a cup of coffee.
One of the challenges to developing cultural intelligence (CQ) in today’s society is that people who live in this postmodern and interconnected world do not recognize that a distinct set of skills and abilities are necessary for functioning well across cultures. Being a good leader in one place does not make you a good leader in all places.
People are often blind to cultural barriers and their own assumptions and worldviews that go with them wherever they go. Ease of communication, travel, and the reach of social media like Facebook all contribute to a false confidence in navigating these global waters.
Desire for experiences, mobility, and impact
People place value in having a plurality of global experiences. Some have called those who were born between 1979 and 1991 the “First Globals Generation.” More than half of this generation (in the U.S.) has traveled abroad; they tend to consider themselves “citizens of planet Earth” and they view the whole world as “their playing field.”
This generation is different than previous generations in that it does not find value not by acquiring the things once touted as part of “the American Dream,” like cars and homes. Rather, value is found through “acquiring experience” and in mobility. Often this includes the ideal of somehow impacting or changing the world.
However, the price tag of these experiences can be pretty high. When the world is used as a playground and people and places are used in order to acquire experiences, people and places become a means to an end.
Good intentions gone bad
When people and places are used to fulfill the needs and wants that come with the postmodernist’s restlessness and desire for more, or the felt need to “help” or “do something good” in the world, the result can actually be quite harmful.
Often the acquisition of experience and leveraging global collaboration overlaps with work projects, education, internships, business opportunities, and social endeavors. However, the results are a mixed bag as the positive and negative aspects of these experiences and their impact go together.
Global experiences and collaboration do not necessarily further God’s kingdom in the world. Worse yet, people and organizations at times leverage global initiatives and multinational partnerships in ways that are dehumanizing and devalue others by taking advantage of people and places to live out their own agendas and desires.
One side has a clear advantage, interest, and gains through the experience while not recognizing that “the other” person or people group is also created in God’s image, thereby worthy of respect and dignity.
A simple analysis of the humanitarian and missionary work of churches and organizations in countries outside the United States demonstrates that people take pride in the “good” they are doing, even though there may sometimes be significant collateral damage from their actions.
All of these factors point to the need to develop not only the cultural intelligence that guides our actions and interactions with others at a global level, but also a theological and missiological foundation that grounds our vision of humanity and of the world.
Are you willing to do what it takes to be an effective and responsible leader in today’s globalized world?
Have you ever considered developing your cultural intelligence as a leader?
 Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Moody Publishers, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 1300-1301.
 This idea was originally coined by John Zogby, pollster, commentator, and author. John Zogby, The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House, 2008).
 Elaina Loveland, “The First Globals Generation,” Voices: International Educator (May/June 2010): 22, http://www.nafsa.org/_/File/_/mayjun10_voices.pdf (accessed May 6, 2013).
 Sam Sanders, “‘Globals’ Generation Focuses on Experience,” NPR.org (July 10, 2012), http://www.npr.org/2012/07/10/156463825/globals-generation-focuses-on-experience?sc=ipad&f=1003 (accessed March 30, 2013).
 Brian Fikkert, Steve Corbett, and John Perkins, When Helping Hurts (Moody Publishers, July 1, 2009). This book has brought the idea of hurtful help into the mainstream.
 Another analysis beyond “When Helping Hurts” is: Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011).