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

The Road of Global Leadership is Riddled with Landmines…And Worth Taking

Written by: on September 16, 2019

A woman shaped by intentional decisions for international displacement, Erin Meyer not only allowed herself to become a culturally savvy leader, she narrated the dynamics of leadership that span cultural boundaries and borders in The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. From the onset of the book, Meyer identifies culture as a significant shaper of an individual’s leadership style and team-contribution. Rather than inviting the global teammate to discount differences as personality quirks, she helps the reader understand perceived differences as postures, practices, and habits that have been shaped by one’s culture of origin. To illustrate the shaping power of culture to one’s vocational and leadership style, Meyer identifies eight scales that map the world’s cultures with regard to how specific countries navigate communication, evaluation, persuasion, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling.  She argues that, when understood and navigated well, these scales can unlock the potential of the individual and the genius of the team.

As I write, I find myself on an airplane that is headed to the bi-national border metropolis called San Diego/Tijuana.  Within that space, my team is about to convene 140 peacemakers form around the planet for a time of rest, rehabilitation, relationship, and learning.  The peacemakers that will gather come from the frontlines of some of the most severe environments of traumatic violence on the globe. They are women and men who, quite literally, are giving their lives for peace and justice because they are fueled by a hope that cannot be quelled by the acts of violence that have plagued their people for generations. A portion of them are direct teammates who have spent the last year co-creating this experience because we believe in the power of rest for the sake of the restorative revolution that we are all apart of. In order to transition this experience from an idea to reality, we have had to learn to navigate the cultural dynamics of communication, trust, and disagreement.  One colleague in particular has provided me the opportunity to transfer the critical learnings from Culture Map on these three scales into my leadership.

The learning curve with regard to communication has been steep.  As Meyer so aptly allude to, I have been trained as a dominant culture US-based leader that excellent communication requires the skill of speaking as directly, clearly, and explicitly as possible (Meyer, p. 31).  My embodiment of this approach is evident in the crystal-clear agendas for meetings that I craft, the bullet-point emails that I draft, and the applications and software for efficient and accurate collaboration that I employ.  Through and through, I am a low-context communicator who speaks in specifics and has not been given the opportunity to learn how to read between the lines as is the native tongue of my high-context, global colleagues. I’ve experienced the steepness of the communication learning curve in moments of frustration with my high-context colleagues as I’ve perceived their communication style as neither prompt nor specific much less thorough and accurate.  From my perspective, their style left so much room for ambiguity and interpretation when, in my opinion, what we needed were facts, data, and decisions. It wasn’t until a long dinner with a Latin American teammate that mutual frustration surfaced. What I had intended as direct, efficient, and accurate communication was experienced by her as patronizing and disempowering. What I had interpreted as elusive and non-thorough was intended by her as an invitation to consider the impact of the decisions our team was making. By meal’s end, both of us had discovered necessary pivots to our communication style that, if employed, would benefit one another, the team, and, ultimately, the success of our project.

The shared table is one of the most powerful tools for building trust between global teammates.  While the focus of our conversation that evening was on the differences in our communication styles, my Latin American colleague and I were surprised to discover how significantly trust had grown in the aftermath of the meal.  My cultural disposition as a US-based leader is that collaboration on the task is the thing that either grows or diminishes trust. For me, one’s passion and commitment to the project as evidenced by energy and accuracy within the collaboration is what generates trust.  It is what I expect from my teammates and it is what I intend to demonstrate in order to gain their trust as well. For her, I learned that trust is built on relationship first and that the project is not worth pursuing unless she knew that she was pursuing it within the context of friendship.  What grew trust for her that evening is that, for three hours, we had forgotten about the work and had focused on strengthening our interpersonal relationship (Meyer, p. 166). In retrospect, rather than it being simply about the content of the conversation, it was the way in which each of us showed up to the conversation that resulted in a growing account of trust.  Each of us entered the table intent upon both discovering what we were missing and also becoming better versions of ourselves. To this day, the two of us constantly point to that meal as the moment when the trust grew that fueled us forward toward the project’s success.

Of the many topics of conversation around the table that evening, our differing experience of a disagreement that we had carried the most emotional significance. According to Meyer’s scale on disagreement, a US-based leader typically sits directly between “Confrontation” and “Avoids Confrontation” (Meyer, p. 201). As an enneagram 8 who identifies strongly as a challenger and who views conflict as an opportunity for formation and the deepening of relationships, I would place myself squarely in the confrontational space.  Less than a desire to be right, I engage conflict as a means toward shaping a more significant relationship. According to the same scale, my Latin American colleague culturally identifies as leaning toward conflict avoidant and, because of the dynamics of US/Central American relationships, she has a identified an inferiority complex within herself that shows up most poignantly in relationship with US-based dominant culture male leaders. The presence of the cultural inferiority complex exacerbates her avoidance of conflict.  While harmony is a value of the conflict-avoidant (Meyer, p. 199), we discovered throughout our conversation that evening that, in the disagreement that we were dissecting, she backed off not in pursuit of harmony, but out of a habitual practice of defaulting to the US American perspective. By the conversation’s conclusion, we made two commitments to one another for the sake of disagreeing constructively: I would temper my energy for the conflict in an effort to create more space for her to warm up to the disagreement and, when needed, she would ask for space in order to collect her thoughts so that she could grow in confidence in pushing back to a US American male leader.  On three separate occasions since those agreements were made, we have practiced these commitments to our own benefit, that of our friendship, the team, and, the overall success of the project.

Without diminishing the importance of Meyers’ additional five scales for cultural intelligence, my experience tells me that communication done well and in a culturally savvy way deepens trust and paves the way for constructive disagreement.  My conviction is growing that the leader for tomorrow’s world is one who must grow in both self awareness and others awareness by demanding one’s own transformation. We must become women and men who learn to “watch more, listen more, and speak less” (Meyer, p. 27)  The work is hard and the road is saturated with landmines, yet, the benefit of becoming one who listens long enough to the perspective that is shaped by another culture is worth it personally, for the team, for the organization, and, ultimately, for those who experience the fruit of the organization’s work.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

18 responses to “The Road of Global Leadership is Riddled with Landmines…And Worth Taking”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    The shared table is one of the most powerful tools for building trust between global teammates.

    The shared table is full of culturally unspoken expectations. Going from the West Coast to the Mid-west is bounding with unspoken expectations too. I appreciate the post re landmines. How to miss the landmines seems to be an art!

    • Simon Igesa Bulimo says:

      Indeed knowing the road of any adventure is vital in life. This is encouraging only that when we read, the hope is that it is practiced on the ground.
      Thanks

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Steve.

      While there are different cultural norms that inform table practice, I’ve found that we all share many more norms than we think. It’s almost as though the table is the place that unlocks the core of our shared humanity and, thus, it is there that we find ourselves and one another most sincerely.

      Oh the adventure of missing the landmines. This pursuit truly is an art and, at present, I’m spending more time trying to learn how to navigate the moments when I have stepped on one. To my surprise, when we navigate landmines well and when we navigate the relationship well after we’ve stepped on one, trusting relationships emerge.

  2. mm Joe Castillo says:

    self-awareness and other awareness by demanding one’s own transformation.
    Very important as we pursue self-awareness that we pursue cultural awareness which is a major element of cultural competence. “It is the first and foundational element because, without it, it is virtually impossible to acquire the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that are essential to cultural competence”. John H Stone

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I’m with you, Joe.

      Cultural awareness void of self-awareness is lacking. While we must seek to become students of our colleagues, we, too, must be students of ourselves. It is in being students of both that our discoveries begin to remake our interiors and reshape our exteriors.

      I wonder, have you noticed the implications of cultural awareness void of self-awareness? From your perspective, what does it look like?

      • mm Joe Castillo says:

        It is interesting that you mention that. Wha I have seen is how cultural awareness plays a major role in influencing the self. Once personal experiences influenced our seld-awareness.

  3. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Trust
    Trust is very important across cultures it helps build very strong relationships. I still hold very strong relationships with my friends from Cameroon and Guinea since years of doing business with them. Nevertheless, I learned to understand that every culture takes trust in very different ways. In the west, cultures are more pragmatic, time-base and task-based. In Americans, for example, we have the tendency to trust someone based on their skills, track record, and references, etc. None westerners culture will trust someone because they like them, they established relationships, common ground, and respect.
    As you do business with other cultures is essential to also be flexible, work your business around the table eating and drinking, visit and been created with the relationships.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Joe,

      In my leadership contexts, I’m working to reconcile the importance of both engaging in the task and prioritizing the relationship. From my view, these two don’t lie on opposite sides of a spectrum but are both essential elements to shaping trusting relationships. If our teams can create ample space for the relationship and demonstrate a shared commitment for the vision/mission in the way we work together, my experience tells me that we will have the privilege of experiencing the fruits of longevity.

  4. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer, I appreciate you sharing very specific examples of how you have navigated challenges in your ministry context. Communication and trust are indeed foundational elements of multi-cultural relationships. I am curious to hear how the restful and spiritual formative practices are received by your culturally diverse group? Will you please share details in London? It would seem all people need rejuvenation, but what is rejuvenating for one culture/individual may not be for another? I pray your time is fruitful and life giving for all involved.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy.

      You bet! I’ll come with stories to share. We’re just completing the first portion of the experience for forty of our international partners and teammates. They are Christian, Jew, and Muslim women and men, each experiencing varying levels of trauma on a daily basis. While we shaped the experience with their input, it has been fascinating to observe how each experiences rest and renewal as well as to find a common language and practice that brings spiritual centeredness to us. It’ll be good to process this all with you.

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, I can relate with your low context communication. I can remember even in middle school that I wouldn’t play the relational games of who-liked-whom. I was the first of my friends to ask a girl face-to-face to the dance. She said yes, but then sent her friend over 5 minutes later to tell me, “She doesn’t want to go to the dance with you; she just couldn’t tell you ‘no’ to your face.”

    I’m praying for the remainder of your week and that much needed and powerful ministry. Do you have a tool or conversation guide to help two people of differing view points talk with one another. I’m not thinking as intense as being at war with one another, but a guide that would help any divide (right/left, egalitarian/complementarian, white/poc, etc.). I’m eager to learn from you on this as I’m becoming more and more distraught by the increasing polarization of our world.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks for your prayers, Shawn.

      You bet! While through our work, we’re navigating global conflict, the rubber meets the road of peacemaking in the internal and interpersonal relationships. I’d love to pick your brain on what you’ve found helpful and will certainly offer tools for constructive, civil dialogue that we’ve found to be effective.

  6. mm Greg Reich says:

    “a leader for tomorrow’s world is one who must grow in both self awareness and others awareness by demanding one’s own transformation.”

    Jer this is a powerful statement, but challenging in a world that finds reality TV a form of entertainment. It appears to be easier to look at someone else’s garbage then to work on our own. May be it’s because by viewing someone else’s issues we grow more comfortable with our own. Despite this you are correct that we must first work on ourselves. Your statement reminds me of the biblical concept of removing the log from you own eye before dealing with the splinter in another persons eye.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Greg.

      Yes. It’s easier and, frankly, it feels better to critique someone else’s garbage than to interrogate the garbage that lies within me. I’m fond of the principle that a Muslim sister shared with me recently with regard to self-awareness and demanding one’s own transformation. She said: “Some of the most important work for each of us is to declare holy war on the darkest parts of ourselves.” As I’m stumbling in the direction of her invitation, I’m discovering that I am becoming more generous in my perspective of others and am less offended by their perceived garbage.

  7. mm John McLarty says:

    I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your ministry. It sounds like you found a very relevant practical application for what we were reading. I’m also curious about how cultural contexts and personality types intersect in unexpected ways.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      John.

      That’s an observation I’ve been making this week as well. Yes, culture plays a very significant part in shaping how we show up…as does disposition. Understanding both seems to be necessary.

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