Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Geometry of Power Distance

Written by: on September 6, 2019

Newton’s third law of motion states that, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”1 While this law is supposedly restricted to physics it can be found in action within cultures as well. For instance when the Black Lives Matter movement began to gather momentum there was a reaction in the form of the All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter responses. And again when the #metoo movement gathered steam there was a reaction in the form of the rumored “war on men.” Regardless of the fact that these reactions missed the point of what they were reacting to and were probably detached from reality they were the result of groups with power reacting to an attack on their empowered status.

In her article Jesus’ Cross-Cultural Model of ‘Leader as Servant’ In Luke 22:24-30 Debby Thomas points to the concept of power distance as a reason why servant leadership is so difficult to achieve. She defines power distance as “the degree to which members of an organization and society encourage and reward unequal distribution of power with greater power at higher levels”2 In layman’s terms if you think of society as a triangle, power distance is the measurement of the separation of the base from the peak. Clearly that is a simplification, but it gets the point across. Thomas argues that a greater power distance makes it difficult for leaders to give up their position of power and embrace a servant leadership model.3

It is common to look at power distance in regard to larger world cultures or business, but I think that it is a concept that should be looked at in smaller groupings of people – such as families – as well. I grew up in a military style family. My father was a military man and he ran his house like a military organization – he was the general, my mom was the lieutenant, and my sisters and I were his privates. We had a very large power distance, which made communication difficult. It also embedded in me an idea that families should be run in this way. Now that I am a father I am struggling with the desire for absolute control I was raised with next to the servant I desire to be.

The power distance between “whiteness” in the United States and “blackness” was, and is, quite large. Nonetheless, a small challenge to that power structure – in the form of Black Lives Matter – caused a reaction based largely in the fear of losing power. In my house I have to watch myself as my children challenge my authority as to what my reaction will be – will it be fear based and severe or will it be a gentle consideration and response. Erin Meyer in The Culture Map reminds us that “once you understand the power distance messages your actions are sending, you can make an informed choice about what behaviors to change.”4 In my case it has been remember that grumpy, angry dad is not modeling what I want my children to learn or copy. As a society the United States is still struggling with the power distance found in race. The question facing us is will we acknowledge this distance and try to remedy it or continue to let it negatively influence generation after generation.

In the struggle to lessen power distance the discipline of hospitality has much to offer. Learning to be host to those you serve will remove much of the facade of grandness that we perceive comes with leadership. Nouwen says, “A good host is not only able to receive his guest with honor and offer them all the care they need but also to let them go when their time to leave has come.”5 In other words being a host is both to serve and also to let go when the time has come. Large power distances emphasize the possession of those below, hospitality emphasizes service and empowerment. If we return to the idea of power distance as a triangle, we find that hospitality does not simply flip the triangle upside down it actually reshapes it into a circle, creating a cycle where one person serves and then is served. Equality is provided and assumed leaving power distance as a memory. The hope and dream is that the reaction to other people’s action would be service. Perhaps in that dream, of hospitable relationships, we can find the equality that our societies – large and small – so deeply desire.6


1 Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~jos/pasp/Newton_s_Three_Laws_Motion.html.

2 Thomas, Debby. “Jesus’ Cross-Cultural Model of ‘Leader as Servant’ In Luke 22:24-30.” Theology of Leadership Journal 1, no. 1 (2018): 69.

3 ibid, 69

4 Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map. New York: PublicAffairs, 124.

5 Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. London: Fount, 1996, 84.

6 Thomas, 70.

About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

10 responses to “The Geometry of Power Distance”

  1. Mary Mims says:

    Sean, I never thought of hospitality as an answer to race issues, but I like the change from a triangle, where minorities are on the bottom, to a circle, where we are sharing what we have in equality. The use of geometry is helpful and paints a clear picture. Thank you for addressing this difficult subject.

  2. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Fascinating Nouwen quote in this post. Very poignant for me as I am in the unique transition space between calls. Thank you.

    • Sean Dean says:

      That whole section of the Nouwen book is challenging – especially the part where he calls parents to be hosts to their children. It stretched me a lot. That being said, I can see how the quote would be challenging as you change parishes. Blessings in the move.

  3. Karen says:

    Sean – I am in agreement with Mary that your use of geometry was helpful in this post – and that comes from a person who hates math. LOL.

    I appreciate how you consistently do your best to make hospitality relatable. You show over and over again that hospitality is found where God and others are, be it parishes or families.


    • Sean Dean says:

      Thanks Karen. The more I think about it the more I see hospitality everywhere. I’m starting to see hospitality as God’s primary mode of operation, which changes how I understand a lot of things.

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I so appreciate your bright thoughts coupled with innovative constructs. Your use of geometry is brilliant to provide an enhanced communication aid when discussing altering power distance. You embody what I appreciate about this cohort, really smart people coupled with really helpful applications. You are a treasure to all of us!

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hey. Thought I’d comment seeing we’re going to be flatting buddies. Loved your piece. Hospitality is the only antidote to power. It follows along the idea of ketosis the emptying of power to be fully open to all comers. It is the the ultimate expression of kinship; the real life that God recognises because it is the life that finally knows we belong to each other. Hospitality drops the pretense and success fantasies and let’s others in. We can be seen and we see the other. Very cool. But not very easy, I must say.

  6. John Muhanji says:

    Dean, this is a brilliant approach to power dynamics model of leadership. Power distance has created a big disparity between the haves and the have not. The gap between the most privileged and the less privileged is growing day and night. The child of the most privilege will always end up in the most prestigious schools and colleges and still get a well-paying job or run the family business empire, while the less privileged one is struggling to get to school and after getting a job is another struggle. This is the situation in Africa. When Africans got independence, they were admiring the way the colonialists ruled and lived their lives. When it came to their time to rule they took every power with them including all the resources meant for serving the people. This is the tide Jesus was going against through his ministry of simplicity and love. His resurrection developed the servanthood leadership which tries to bridge the gap.

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