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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

High Power, Low Distance

Written by: on September 6, 2018

The Theology of Leadership Journal claims to be an academic journal for Christian leaders to think theologically about leadership amid the cacophony of non-theological leadership models and concepts that have emerged in the past twenty or so years. The journal seeks to provide, through academic articles, “models and theories of leadership that have been developed, tested, and shown to be at least as effective as anything else the world may offer.”[1]A team of five editors have collected a variety of articles for the journal’s debut issue. One article that interested me the most was titled, “Jesus’ Cross-Cultural Model of ‘Leader as Servant’ In Luke 22:24-30.

The author of the article, a former student of George Fox Theological Seminary, offered a socio-rhetorical exegesis of Luke 22:24-30 to persuade the reader that Jesus’ model (or command) of leading as a servant first is a model of Christian leadership that can be applied in virtually any culture, even and especially cultures with high power distance where it is most needed. High power distance cultures know a style of leadership that is formal, where those in power have relational distance from their constituents. In high power distance cultures, the constituents are not free to criticize the leaders. High power distance means that those who are not in power are not given a voice to advocate for themselves or others. As a democracy, here in the West, we are more familiar with low power distance, where those in power are not free to “lord it over” those who are not in leadership, and the constituents are free to criticize the leaders and demand a more equal society.

The first church I served was a Taiwanese congregation, where they knew only high power distance cultural leadership. This different understanding of leadership created conflict and frustration. For me, I felt isolated that the elders would talk to each other about their desires for church, but not to me. They treated me with great reverence and would never feel free to criticize me, even though I asked for constructive feedback. Though I know and seek to embrace a servant leader style, and though our Presbyterian polity allowed for democratic equality, the cultural high power distance experience was deeply embedded in their collective consciousness, and too difficult for them to embrace an equality that I was seeking to bring to the church.

We see this dynamic in elementary school classrooms throughout the United States. Two of my children attend a public elementary school that is about 75% Hispanic/Latino. The parents of these children, who also come from more high power distance cultures than the U.S., often have to learn how to advocate for their children by speaking to the administration and the teachers and asking for needed assistance or correction. One of the first things that immigrants from many non-Western countries have to learn is how to shift from a high power distance culture to a low-power distance culture where they can actually have a voice that makes a difference.

It seems to me that the question of the writer is, how does a high power distance culture adapt to an increasing desire for equality and lower power distance between leaders and constituents. Considering Luke 22, the author of the article describes a high power distance culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived within the Roman Empire in the first century. In the midst of this culture, Jesus corrects his disciples desire for power and acclaim, and instead offers them a way of leadership that is absolutely foreign to anyone living in the Roman Empire in the first century: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’” Luke 22:25-27.

Consistent with Luke’s concern for the poor and the marginalized (those without power), Jesus is describing the way the kingdom of God works even when it’s overlaid onto the kingdoms of the world. The author writes: “Jesus highlights the difference between the values of this world and kingdom values. While the world defines greatness as having power and being served, in the kingdom greatness is found by being a servant to all (Stein, 1992).”[2]The assumption the author challenges throughout the article is that low power distance leadership is more closely aligned with the Gospel than is high power distance leadership. The assumption seems to be that leaders in low power distance cultures are more prone to lead as servants than leaders in high power distance cultures. The author claims (and I agree) that this assumption is false. The current administration in the White House serves as a fine example that any culture, with either low or high power distance, can avoid serving as a model for leadership. The author of the article (Debbie Thomas) claims that servant leadership can be practiced in any culture, and might especially be helpful for the pursuit of equality in high power distance cultures.

Thomas used her personal experience as a missionary serving in Rwanda to show the reader how Jesus’ model of servant leadership can be applied in high power distance cultures. The way forward, Thomas concluded, was not to try and force a high power distance cultural community into a low power distance cultural community, for this would be a colossal failure. Instead, as a leader, Thomas learned that she had to adapt her style of leadership to the culture’s expectations, uncomfortable assuming a more formal, high power distance style of leadership, and “providing for people in a paternalistic style of leadership.”[3]She goes on to confess, “These forms of leadership did not fit my personal leadership style, nor my values and I did not believe they would lead to a meaningful life transformation or sustainable development. My prerogative was to break the culturally assigned high power distance roles and work with and among communities as a servant leader.”[4]

Without naming it directly, the author seems to recognize that the challenge of leadership in high power distance cultures is the challenge of personal transformation. Character transformation (or personal growth) occurs when people are able to be responsible for making decisions and carrying them out. For example, when pastors come alongside a group of elders to empower them to make decisions and carry out ministries, the members grow and mature in ways they would not if the pastor made all the decisions for them. It is only by taking responsibility are people able to grow.

Pope Francis is the first to embrace a low power distance style of servant leadership. It began when he washed the feet of inmates on his first Maundy Thursday, instead of attending a fancy dinner tradition. This pope has broken almost every tradition he feels is not in line with the servant way of Jesus and his kingdom. While the author did not do justice to define and explain what “servant leadership” looks like when it’s applied to a high power distance culture, I would look to Fr. Bergoglio as one who embodies the strength and conviction of effective leadership balanced with serving those in need.

Power itself is not the problem, but the abuse of power. Low power distance cultures tend to have more systems in place to prevent the abuse of power than do high power distance cultures, but power can be abused in any situation, or it can be used for good. What the author could have described in more detail is the nature of service and the trust that is gained through service, so that the power that is given to the leader is a greater power because it’s not the authority of a position or office that breeds faithful followers, but the authority of the leader’s character, the strength of which is witnessed in service to others. This is a gospel-power because it requires, by definition, sacrifice by the leader. The sacrifice of time, pride, personal interest or reputation reflects (in a small way) the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the greatest “servant-leader” act in human history. Power is gained through service, but distance is diminished.

The power of the cross and the closeness of the incarnation are the two primary events out of which Christians can seek to understand the relationship between power and distance in the context of servant leadership.

[1]Theology of Leadership Vol 1, Seelig, Glaser, Newport, Dyrness, Frankopan, Friedman, Kets de Vries, Galloway, Anderson

[2]Ibid., 73.

[3]Ibid., 75.

[4]Ibid., 75.

About the Author

Chris Pritchett

9 responses to “High Power, Low Distance”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Chris,

    Great discussion on high power/low distance! And using your experiences of Thailand really drove your point home well. Love it!

    To me, your most effective illustrations also included Pope Francis. What a powerful example!

    You are a smart guy, Chris. I am so glad you are in this Cohort.

  2. Excellent read!

    I loved your statement, “As a democracy, here in the West, we are more familiar with low power distance, where those in power are not free to “lord it over” those who are not in leadership, and the constituents are free to criticize the leaders and demand a more equal society.” This type of leadership style is highly favored amongst millennials, because it creates a symbiotic relationship and peer-oriented interaction. Has this type of preference created a schism amongst those who prefer high power distance? Have we created tolerance for intergenerational understanding while excluding intercultural dynamics?

    • Chris Pritchett says:

      Thanks for commenting! In the church I formerly pastored in Seattle (PCUSA), it was true that the older generations were oriented toward a more high power distance style of leadership than the younger generations. I’m not sure why that is when the polity hasn’t changed.

  3. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thanks for commenting! In the church I just left (PCUSA), they constantly struggled with high and low power issues, and they pretty much ran along generational lines.

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Chris,

    You win points for this blog just because you were able to use cacophony in a sentence. So with that amazing start to your blog you provide a powerful explanation of the 2 types of cultural power/distance models. It’s interesting to note as the author does that these power/distance models are not necessarily relevant when considering servant leadership, even though it might initially appear that the low power/distance model lends itself more readily to servant leadership.

    I wonder about your term in the Thai church and if your efforts to demonstrate servant leadership ever caused moments of ‘breakthrough’ that you were seeking. Do you think it is possible to help cultures with high power/distance models to experience servant leadership or is that another example of someone from a more democratic culture foisting their preferred leadership style on an unwitting group of people?

  5. Chris,

    I appreciated your observations and especially that you uncovered the example of Debby Thomas who came from a low power style who had to learn the high power style to function effectively in her African leadership role. It is helpful to show that it is not the high/low difference that is wrong; it is merely different. Just as Jesus was incarnated in a particular West Asian cultural environment with brown eyes and speaking Aramaic, servant leadership will look unique in each culture where it lands.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    I had one of the men of the church tell me a few weeks ago, “Shawn, I do believe I agree with your understanding of the scripture you were discussing.” I told him that it was okay to disagree, but could he show me the scriptures that have given a different view. He said, “Oh, I don’t know what I believe regarding the text, I just think you are wrong.” Let me tell you, some days, I would love to be part of that group that the people are not allowed to argue or criticize those in authority. It seems that our culture is too comfortable with criticism without knowledge; they want to critique out of their own admitted ignorance, rather than distribute quantitative and intelligent debate. I have never had a problem with someone having a difference of opinion; I only have a problem with them telling me I am wrong with no supporting evidence after I preach a lesson that is full of scriptural support.

    I would also add however, I am very careful concerning my own educational progress, because I never want the certificate on the wall to convince me that I no longer need to be held accountable to the Word; nor do I want to think so highly of myself that I become the constant critic of others.

    In regard to Christ though, at that time period, the very fact that He was regarded as the Rabbi, would have been enough credibility to warrant not being questioned or criticized by just anyone. How sad that He does not get that same kind of respect in the world today.

  7. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Hi Chris, incredible post! I learned more from this post than many of the articles I have read. Your Taiwanese connection was excellent. I too have witnessed high distance and low distance leadership models in ethnic churches and you are right that you can be a servant or non-servant leader in both of those contexts. very timely for me!

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hey Chris,
    Great post and discussion of power distance here! I think you engaged with the Thomas article, but also related it to your own personal experience as well as showing the practical outworking among Hispanic/Latino parents in the school. Thanks!

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