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

What kind of leader brings honor?

Written by: on November 8, 2018

Moving to a new city there are patterns, unknown rules, and often times one will over step without knowing so. Trying to be culturally sensitive in this new city, we thought we would simply bring interested students to the local Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Government Christian Church). We were told this was legal and it was the one place we would be able to worship together. After attending only two times, we were approached by a foreigner that had lived in that city for more than 10 years. She simply said, “Which of you have been attending the government church?” We raised our hands in this small group of foreigners. She simply said, “Yea, you can’t do that anymore. My police friend asked if you would only come at Christmas and Easter. Which means they don’t want you to attend or bring anyone to these services, anymore.” I asked her, “Why did they tell you?” She responded, “They were given an order from their leadership and they didn’t want to embarrass you nor themselves.” Indirect confrontation is the root of many honor/shame countries. I will admit that this situation left me with lots of questions and no one to ask them to. Working within this system of leadership designed to be both hierarchal and save face produces a little anxiety for the westerner that wants to understand the “why”.

More than any time previous, I began to see some of the foundational methods of confrontation and the dynamics of leadership. For the Chinese, the group’s concerns outweighs those of a single person. Society’s needs overshadowed the needs and achievements of the individual. Just as successes adds to honor, a failure similarly reflects upon the group. Actions are calculated to maximize honor and minimize shame. Right and wrong are defined in terms of bringing or taking away honor. “As long as the results bring honor, the moral issues are secondary. Success can be measured in wealth, power, or education. For example, a student who fails brings shame. Cheating leads to a positive result (good grades) and as long as they are not caught, the action has brought honor and is acceptable. However, if the student is caught, the same action brings shame. In order to preserve lost honor, the family may choose to hide the wrongful act and its consequence.”1

In a community-minded culture, people are more likely to think and act the same as their family. If individualistic cultures are about standing out and how to be innovative, communal cultures are more about keeping the harmony and blending in. As I reflected on my research within these cultures and Edwin Friedman’s view of leadership, I realized how Chinese thoughts are seemingly the antithesis of Friedman’s “differentiated leader” concepts.

In larger societies, as in families, the ability to cope can be lost as “anxiety escalates as society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change and as the institutions or individuals traditionally used to absorb or bind off society’s anxiety are no longer available to absorb it” 2. Without a strong leader at the helm of the country, or the family, Chinese would feel like their boat was set adrift without direction. This country that was founded on revolution has the ability to channel that underlining aggression to create “anxiety reducing scapegoats” in an extremely effective way. When tension arises, that aggression is redirected to those that might want to publicly shame the community. This is seen in China when there are trade wars, apparent encroachment on the country either politically, geographically, or economically. The country is rallied against the “object of the day” to allow honor to be restored and anxiety to be alleviated. In such an anxiety-driven context, society becomes increasingly undifferentiated, unimaginative, unwilling to undertake risk and hyper-reactive. “Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes, where any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather than trying to disperse the fumes.”3

There is not the time to review the “herd-like” or even “blame displacement” concepts of Friedman in greater detail other than to say that these two concepts are utilized to create a society that love and trusts its leaders. Trust has been defined as an implicit moral duty that one person will not bring harm to the other. Trusting in leaders involves a certain vulnerability, and followers’ willingness to do so is greatly influenced by how leaders treat them. Chinese often have a view of submission and reliance on authority. This traditional view “could be one of the most influential factors influencing the relationship between differentiated empowering leadership and trust in leaders.”4 Chinese followers tend to be unconditionally obedient and loyal to their leaders. In China, leaders are treated as fathers and followers are seen as sons. Sons have the instinctive tendency to trust their fathers. Thus, these followers are less likely to be suspicious of their leader’s behavior. 5

Friedman doesn’t refer to a leader as someone who dictates to others, but to “someone who can maintain the kind of non-anxious, well-principled presence”6 that he has described. Chinese traditionally are longing for a strong leader that is able to stand strong against the changing tides of the world. This is seen as someone that is not intimidated by other nations and has helped the Chinese from being overly anxious about change. When this type of leader emerges the people feel pride and safety. They are willing to overlook the loss of, what the west would say are, personal freedoms for the good of the nation, the city, and the family. Thus, the conversation is not about right or wrong, but what brings about honor and shame.

1 Muller, Roland. Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2001. Naylor, Mark. “Fear, Shame and Guilt.” Cross Cultural Impact for the 21st Century. 1 August 2010. Web. 17 August 2014.

2 Friedman, Edwin H., Treadwell, Margaret M, and Beal, Edward W. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New ed. New York: Seabury Books, 2007. 57

3 Ibid. 58

4 Li, Shao-Long, Yuanyuan Huo, and Li-Rong Long. “Chinese Traditionality Matters: Effects of Differentiated Empowering Leadership on Followers’ Trust in Leaders and Work Outcomes.” Journal of Business Ethics 145, no. 1 (2017): 81-93.

5 Ibid. 91

6 Friedman, Edwin H., Treadwell, Margaret M, and Beal, Edward W. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New ed. New York: Seabury Books, 2007. 89

About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

15 responses to “What kind of leader brings honor?”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Solid as always.

    I was wondering if a “leader who brings honor” in the Chinese context is somewhat different than what our author espoused–specifically in lessening anxiety by working with the strong (rather than adapting to the weak)? Furthermore, I am not sure how Chinese culture would respond to his idea–work with motivated people (rather than symptomatic people).

    Any further thoughts related to your situation?

    • Greg says:

      Jay, I will say that I was writing closer to my topic than the book. I had to keep reminding myself that there were several directions I could have gone …rabbit trails 🙂 but wanted to keep true to my diss. topic. I really to believe that the top Chinese leadership have to be somewhat differentiated but they do not desire those in leadership below them to be.

  2. I was so curious to read your take on this, particularly related to your context. These conecepts, while personally life changing for me, are counter-cultural everywhere to some degree. In some way, I think honor/shame cultures might be MORE differentiated in that they are less concerned about personal consequences than collective ones. But the means through which they achieve differentiation (as you note) are not always right. (deception, cheating, etc.)

    I do think that having a “non-anxious presence” builds confidence in others in most any culture. What do you think?

    • Greg says:

      Jenn. First I need time to really read this book. it seems awesome in the limited capacity that I have read it last week. I think leaders are differentiated but not necessarily in always a positive way…or at least not in a way Americans would say was positive. It does seem most people want to live in a safe world and are willing to put up with a lot to reduce that anxiety.

  3. M Webb says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience at the Three-Self gatherings where you serve. The differences do make the difference and I think while amazing, it is not surprising to see others take exception to your differences. “Indirect Confrontation” gives clarity to the cultural context where you live and work.
    Hiding the shame of a wrongful act is huge in other countries where your country expands and advances. In Botswana, I saw and knew hundreds of young men who were sent to “work off” their shame in government construction projects. After 1-3 years of service, depending on the level of their shame, they worked it. Sound familiar, working off sin? After the good works are completed it seems that their honor is restored, and they return home and rejoin their family and community. Great post!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Greg says:

      Mike, I know that Africa and Asia have similar thoughts on honor and shame. I know when I write about it you definitely are one that understands from a deeper perspective and I would guess have stories that come to mind. Talking with people about the Gospel has to come from the direction of love and a God that restores that honor.

  4. Jason Turbeville says:

    I was looking forward to your perception of this book and how it would work within your cultural context. Within the shame/honor culture it is so interesting that cheating and not getting caught is seen as honor. It is hard to understand that from my point of view, but then, of course, I am not in that culture. How does the ability to follow without worry about the moral consequences affect the leader them selves. Does it empower to use “any means necessary” to do what they see as best for the country?


    • Greg says:

      Jason you hit the nail on the head. A leader willing to do whatever is necessary is seen and one that if fighting for his/her people rather than being one that is pushy and inconsiderate. The good of the group one is leading is all that matters. This is why my “job” as a quality control inspector is so important…

  5. Great post, Greg!

    Wow! As I read Friedman, I immediate could identify those who reaction quickly, displace blame or place too much emphasis on empathy; however, I had a difficult time thinking of leaders who fell into the herding group. You mention, “For the Chinese, the group’s concerns outweighs those of a single person.” Do you find that many in China struggle with a conformist/herding reaction compared to the other forms that Friedman discussed? Is this changing with the influence of globalization? Are young people exemplifying the same herding response?

    • Greg says:

      Yes, there is a new generation that is fighting the status quo yet they do it in a way that still tries to honor the family. I do think it is moving the country slowly to think critically in some aspects but then again largely over looks others that are not directly affecting them directly. This country still is so much about me and my group’s interests….all others are not part of the consideration.

  6. Dan Kreiss says:


    It is always good to understand how the concepts we wrestle with in this program may be understood in a different cultural context. From what I understood in your blog having a differentiated leader is less important than having a leader who is seen as decisive and strong, particularly in the face of opposition from outsiders. The collective perspective is difficult to understand for those of us in the very individualistic West but there are aspects of it from which we could learn a great deal. Thank you for continuing to provide your insights from an alternate perspective. I wonder how the Friedman text may influence your leadership in China even with the recognition that that culture understands leadership very differently.

    • Greg says:

      Dan. As I said earlier, I would actually like to read this book in it entirety. I know this book was written for an American (or western) context but do think there are aspects of leadership development that would be applicable

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Greg, your post reminded me a lot about my first year at my current church. Upon my first interview, it was revealed to me that the church was going through an ugly breakup with the last minister, who had been currently working to divide the church over his dismissal. The eldership asked me the question, “Why should we hire you over everyone else that has applied?” I simply told them, “Because I have fought this fight before.” A month later I was standing in the pulpit in front of almost 100 people, a number of which had been contemplating leaving to find another church. My sermon said this, “Only Satan wants us to look back at our mistakes, failures, and shortcomings; God desires that we look forward that the potential we have for tomorrow.” That was it…all of a sudden we not only dodged the split, but we also managed to bring back a few of the families that had already left. I don’t believe it was because I was the greatest preacher they ever heard, but rather that I offered them a chance at stability when their spiritual world was quaking around them. You said it; they are looking for a leader that is willing to stand strong when times are the toughest. Sadly, I believe the greatest struggle on the leader after this first achievement however, is that he/she becomes scared to show weakness after that; and as Christian leaders, I believe we too need to show that we have weaknesses and struggles and therefore need to turn to God for our true strength.

    Great post.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thank you for this post and once again bringing our reading into your own cultural context and your research area. I was really floored to read your insight that “Chinese thoughts are seemingly the antithesis of Friedman’s “differentiated leader” concepts.” I suppose we already know that Friedman is a “Western” writer/thinker, but here is a case where the very thing that he is advocating for, which made him successful and important for us, also is a disconnect when put into another setting. Thanks 🙂

  9. Trisha Welstad says:

    Greg, your example at the beginning of the government church is enough to have answered my lingering question to the professor while in Hong Kong about why not just have one church. It’s not nearly as simple as Phillip seemed to make it.

    I wondered how much of Friedman’s text would apply. I wonder if you think there is a way that gets at following Jesus that is neither Western/Eastern and where you see Friedman and differentiation fitting with that?

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