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

How do you say “leader” in French?

Written by: on December 6, 2017

The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, a volume based on Harvard Business School’s Centennial Colloquium, boasts a diverse and celebrated list of contributors. Each chapter has a unique focus, exploring the concept of leadership from various fields of study, including psychology, economics, sociology, and history. According to editors, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khuranra, “This edited volume has one primary purpose—to stimulate serious scholarly research on leadership.”[1] So rather than answering all of our leadership questions, The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice teases out those questions and offers them up as bait for researchers. Nevertheless, their observations and subsequent questions are fodder for thought and left me with much to consider.

As an American missionary in France, I was drawn to Chapter 13, “Leadership and Cultural Context: A Theoretical and Empirical Examination Based on Project GLOBE.”[2] Acknowledging the fact that globalization has created leadership challenges for international business, the authors write, “Thus, a critical question of importance to management scholars and researchers is the nature and dynamic of leadership in a cross-cultural environment.”[3] Using well-established criteria that measures cultural values, the authors analyse findings from Project GLOBE to assess how some societal cultural preferences may influence organizational leadership styles. They rightly conclude that a culture’s value orientations will determine the “optimum leadership profile for that country.”[4]

There’s just one problem with that approach. It presupposes an understanding of the concept of leadership in the first place. The word “leadership” doesn’t even exist in French, except as an imported word from English that gets pronounced “lee dare sheep.”  The French have the verbs diriger (which would translate as to direct, to guide, or to steer), maîtriser (which means to control or to overpower), and présider (to preside over or to chair), none of which capture what an American would mean by “lead.” And the nouns closest to the word “leader” in French don’t come close to hitting the mark of what any of our American leadership gurus describe. They have le chef (the boss), le responsable (the person responsible or manager), and le directeur (the director). While all of these French words are related to the concept of leadership, none of them actually capture it. And since a culture’s lexicon reflects its values, perhaps even the well-established criteria for analysing cultural values with regard to leadership reflects a cultural bias.

For example, one of the cultural dimensions that project GLOBE uses is “Performance Orientation” which is described as “The extent to which an organization or society encourages and rewards group members for performance improvement and excellence.” [5] But how are they measuring “performance improvement and excellence”? Another word that doesn’t exist in French is the word “efficient.” Efficiency is a strong USAmerican value, we tend to believe that being efficient is important and good. It would be something that is associated with performance and excellence in and American business. But the French don’t even have a word for it because it is not a strong value in France! So I can’t help but wonder if the questions asked by project GLOBE resulted in a comparison of apples and oranges.

Given the fact that missionaries have been leading cross-culturally for centuries, I think they have something to contribute to the global leadership conversation. Let me be the first to admit that missionary leadership has not always been GOOD leadership. And with Sherwood Lingenfelter, I also acknowledge that there are critical differences between the leadership goals of missionaries and secular governments or business entities.[6] But the need to cross cultural barriers to reach certain goals is common to both the missionary and the business person. In his book Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership, Lingenfelter identifies five critical characteristics of cross-cultural leadership—establishing relational trust, defining a compelling vision, stepping out ahead, calling others to follow, and empowering those who follow you.[7] All of these are based on the life and actions of Jesus, and thus deemed to be applicable to all cultures. While I would agree that the person of Christ transcends all cultural differences, I think we must be careful not to put our own interpretation of Christ’s life and actions into that same category. Nevertheless, I do think that Lingenfelter offers some important insights that might get overlooked by those coming at the study of culture from a profit-driven standpoint. I’ll offer an example based on the first characteristic that Lingenfelter identifies—the need to build relational trust.

A French businessman told me a story about a contract that his company was competing for in Peru. The other company that was competing for the contract was an American company. The American team showed up at nine a.m. one morning and spent the entire day giving a dazzling presentation about their extraordinary product—a product that (according to our French friend) was superior to the French product. They had videos, samples, market research, and experts in the field, all of which sang the praises of the American product. When the business day was over, the American company packed up and headed home, confident that they had convinced the Peruvian client of the advantage of their product. The next day, the French team showed up. They had planned to spend a week in Peru, so the first day they simply toured the city and sampled the food. The second day they had a lunch meeting with the Peruvian clients, just to get to know them. They did not discuss business at all. The third day they all played golf together and the fourth day the French team was invited to the Peruvian director’s home for dinner. On the fifth day, the French team came into their clients’ place of business and talked a little about their product and pricing, and when they left they said that they would be in town for two more days, available if the client had any further questions. By the time they left on the seventh day, the French team was offered the contract. The Americans were selling a product. The French were sere selling a relationship, and that’s what the Peruvians were buying.

[1] Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: An HBS Centennial Colloquium on Advancing Leadership (Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press, 2010). Kindle Loc 76.

[2] Nohria and Khurana. Kindle Loc 4161.

[3] Nohria and Khurana. Kindle Loc 4165.

[4] Nohria and Khurana. Kindle Loc 4250.

[5] Nohria and Khurana. Kindle Loc 4271..

[6] Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008). Kindle Loc 1152

[7] Lingenfelter.

About the Author


Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

2 responses to “How do you say “leader” in French?”

  1. mm M Webb says:


    I agree with your statement “missionary leadership has not always been GOOD leadership.” From what I have seen in many missionary organizations when a position of leadership opens in the mission field, they usually promote from within. In most cases, the missionary promoted has little or no leadership training, yet they move forward in faith and do their best. This practice tends to marginalize the organization’s leadership over time.

    Leadership in cross-cultural scenarios often evolves into a caretaker role by the leader because the indigenous followers see the outside person as someone with wealth and power, even if they are barley making ends meet with their missionary financial support. We are rich, compared to the poverty we encounter in the locations we minister.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

  2. Salut Jenn,

    Thanks, once again, for a provocative post. I really appreciated your perspective this fall, bringing in an alternative worldview to complement our class discussions, and this post is only one great example.

    I smiled at the Peruvian example and at your discussion of French “efficiency”, and you are right to critique how we understand leadership as being culturally-bound.

    I agree with you that the person of Christ transcends all cultural distinctives as He is Christ over all. But Jesus as a man was bound by his culture, and operated within it, pushing against the boundaries of it to offer liberation for the oppressed.

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