Every day, the world gets a little more connected.
In 2010, about 1.9 billion people were using the internet; just 6 years later that number grew by 60% to 3.2 billion (itu.int).
Despite the efforts from various governments to regulate or censor information shared across the internet, our knowledge of other cultural contexts continues to increase. Along with internet growth, cell phones use is multiplying rapidly. Astonishingly, according to Global Giving, more people in the world have access to a cell phone than a toilet.
Not only are we increasingly virtually linked, but we are also physically interacting across national and cultural boundaries more than ever. In 2017, the airline industry added 500 new flights between international cities that didn’t have flights before. Last year, there were 258 million international migrants worldwide, up from 170 million in 2000 (un.org).
Collaboration and cooperation across cultural lines
All these expanding networks of interaction mean that leaders increasingly find themselves in more diverse communities and organizations. Pastors are seeing the shifting demographics in their communities and realizing their congregations are not reaching those new people. Teachers are experiencing the growing ethnic diversity in their classrooms. Sales managers are tasked with growing their companies’ international footprint. Coaches of their child’s sports teams are trying to navigate the different cultural backgrounds of the families participating.
As a result, the ability to encourage collaboration and cooperation across cultural difference is becoming a prerequisite for leading in today’s global society.
It is true that working with diversity is not easy. We will need to listen more closely and ask more questions so that we understand what is really meant. We may need to choose not to be offended by a behavior or comment because it’s unfamiliar and therefore seems rude. We will need to pay better attention to our own assumptions about norms and practices that might be different in other cultures.
More than anything, leading in a diverse world will require that we enter conversations with humility and patience.
What is important to note is that this work with diversity is worth it. In their analysis of three organizations with diverse staffs, researchers Ely and Thomas discovered that when diversity is valued, the differences can become a potent resource for advancing an organization’s mission.[i] Including the varying perspectives of diverse team members opens up more opportunities to be creative and provides more options to solve problems.
Diversity among Christians
Valuing diversity is something that all humans should work at doing. However, as Christians, shouldn’t we be the very best at this? The Apostle Paul in First Corinthians asks us to celebrate our differences and anticipate that we each bring something important to the community. He challenges us to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (2:3-4).
If we can’t be loving to our diverse brothers and sisters within the church, how do we hope to share and show the love of Jesus to the diverse communities and organization in our secular contexts?
In John’s vision of the throne room of God, he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne” all worshiping the Lamb (Rev. 7:9). Isn’t that our ultimate goal: to show our love as Christians by demonstrating our unity within the diversity of his people and inviting diverse others to join us in worship?
I think so.
The role of leaders
I also believe that leaders have a unique role to play in creating the environments where diversity can be a benefit rather than a cause for division. Leaders occupy a unique position as they interact with individuals, build relational networks within their groups and across domains, and influence the structure, approach, and goals of their larger communities and organization.[ii] We need humble leaders making intentional efforts to include and celebrate all the people of God.
So what do you do if you are a leader in any context where diversity is present and you want to increase your abilities as a leader?
Educators often use the tool Head, Heart, Hand to assess if a person has actually learned something:
- Do you cognitively know the information so that you can communicate it in some way?
- Have you had an internal transformation such that your attitudes have shifted?
- Are you able to act out your learning by demonstrating a skill or ability?
Using this framework for learning, here are three simple suggestions to grow in your ability to lead in this diverse world.
Head: Expand the scope of what you read. The next time you pick up a book, see if you can find one about international leadership or by an author from a different cultural context than your own. Here are a couple of suggestions that have helped me: Leading Across Cultures by James Plueddemann and The Power of Latino Leadership by Juana Bordas.
Heart: In a previous post, I shared some of my learnings from my study of Inclusive Leadership, namely that to maintain the long-term health of a diverse community, the leader must be good friends with someone who is significantly different. As you share life with this person, you will be changed; your attitudes and perspectives will shift. To get started, you might intentionally seek out someone who is different from you and invite them to coffee; or, you could go to a social event that is aimed at a different culture. Of course, building such a trusting relationship will require effort and humility, but it’s worth the work.
Hand: There are many different lists of intercultural competency skills. One skill you could work on from almost anywhere is perspective shift: intentionally making an effort to look at a situation from another perspective, identifying both how the perspective is similar and different from your own. When you hear something you disagree with, stop and ask, “Why might that person be saying that?” The goal is not to agree with them but to assume their best intentions and understand their cultural context.
Each of us leads in a unique setting and is wired with a certain personality, so the particular method you choose might be different than any of my suggestions. My encouragement is that you choose something. Stretch yourself. Spend time in prayer asking God to reveal how he might be inviting you to grow as a leader.
My prayer is that as we seek to lead well in a diverse world, we more clearly demonstrate the love of Christ to all who are made in his image.
Christina Walker is Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
[i] Ely, Robin J., and David A. Thomas. 2001. “Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes.” Administrative Science Quarterly 46 (2): 229–73.
[ii] Gallegos, Plácida V. 2014. “The Work of Inclusive Leadership.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 177–202. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.