Leading across culture: The dynamics of deeper-level change

Leaders, particularly spiritual leaders, are challenged today in unprecedented ways, but none any more challenging than the necessity of being a leader across varied cultures.

John Grys is director of Advent House and editor of the forthcoming Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, Knoxville, Tennessee

On the evening of April 12, 1915, the Titanic went down after striking an iceberg. More than 1,000 people died. Within the past two decades, it has been acknowledged that the iceberg, well below the waterline, tore a hole in the hull. What brought this mighty ship down took place below the surface. What goes undetected below the waterline of a culture often creates the conditions for an increasingly healthy or unhealthy environment.

Leaders, particularly spiritual leaders, are challenged today in unprecedented ways, but none any more challenging than the necessity of being a leader across varied cultures. What provides the strength and basis for culture is not what is visible but what often goes undetected, unseen, and unexamined. Consequently, leaders who have various cultures under their care must cultivate the capacity to see below the surface.

The challenge

One of a leader's first tasks is to take a cultural snapshot of the places where he or she leads. Whether Managua, Milwaukee, Manilla, or Moscow, each carries a history of established ways in which people live, love, learn, and lead. Often what interferes with leading change in a given environment is not the leader's ideas, nor his or her vision, nor the planning, but the ability of the leader to incarnate leadership within the culture; that is, to come to understand and even to become part of the culture. Incarnating leadership across culture requires taking seriously what largely goes unspoken, unexpressed, or unexamined.

With the expanding interconnectedness of our global village, the continuous immigration to the Western world, and the rapid shift from a Northern Hemisphere Christianity to a Southern Hemisphere Christianity,1 the capacity of ecclesiastical leadership to transcend its own culture becomes vital.

Recent projections suggest diversity will be the new defining component in the United States. The aging of our population2 and the growth from the immigrant community3 will reconfigure our indigenous communities.4 When we add educational experience, religious diversity, and economic strain to the equation, it becomes readily apparent that the ability to lead across cultural divides will become the defining challenge for the church in the very near future. Effectively carrying the gospel to every tribe, nation, and tongue is the daunting task ahead of us.


Culture is the "shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or mean ings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives that are transmitted across generations."5 This culture can be identified by four layers. What someone initially encounters in a group or organization are those identity-creating phenomena that are seen, heard, and felt, and that serve as the tangible products of the group.

These first-level signs are called "artifacts."6 For example, within a given group, story after story is told about inactive Christians who have returned through the ministry of that local congregation. The tapestry of these stories serves as a symbol for that church.

Other artifacts can include the design of the church, the way minutes are taken, the manner of the membership second transfer reading, the location of the organ, whether or not preliminaries are held during Sabbath School, or the type of music used throughout the church.

This initial layer is very easy to observe but difficult to interpret. I may walk into a church on a given Sabbath at the time of the first service and see men wearing casual shirts. I can deduce that this church is relaxed in its dresscode. However, I might be mistaken because in the culture of that church, the Guayabera shirt is formal wear.

The same confusion may exist when it comes to other areas of activity, whether it be in the way the nominating committee conducts its business, the version of the Bible acceptable to the group, budget allocations, or the color of the carpet. At this "artifact" level, one is subject to making quick and often inaccurate evaluations. Once a person has spent time in a local congregation or local culture, subtle reasons begin to emerge that provide meaning to the prevailing artifacts.

Pastor Paul has just moved from First Church in a Southern state of the United States, where the dominant instrument had been an organ donated two decades earlier by a wealthy member who had since died. Arriving from the South in a Midwestern state, he discovers at Second Church the dominant instrument is also an organ. This organ, he discovers, how ever, is used because the membership of the congregation enjoys the full sound of the organ and the organist is a classically trained musician.

While both churches have an organ, their reasons for using and valuing such an instrument are different. The "artifact" significance of the organ is revealed by these reasons. In First Church, they valued and honored the memory of people who had given much, such as the organ, to advance the cause of Christ among them. In Second Church, they valued the gifts of the people (particularly the organist) and the beauty of the sound of the instrument, along with the excellence that was provided by its prominent role in the worship of the congregation.

Espoused and operational values

The values espoused by a particular culture are also critical to the identity or "signature" of that culture or congregation. The values themselves and the way they influence the culture and operate within it is what is known as the value system of the culture.

There are two layers to a given value system. There are the values that are professed by the church, organization, or culture, and there are the values that are actually at work. The first are called "espoused values," the second, "operational values." 7 Espoused values are those professed by the organization to be what guides the culture in what it does and how it lives. Operational values, on the other hand, are those principles that are actually at play in the life and operation of the organization.

Pastor Paul's Second Church pro fesses that central to their fellowship is the building of a vibrant and friendly biblical community—a value put in the weekly bulletin, included in the monthly newsletter, and preached by Pastor Paul once a quarter.

Inquiring Ivan visits Second Church for a couple weeks, during which he discovers that few people have introduced themselves, still fewer have shaken his hand, and though he raises his hand to make a comment during general lesson study, he has not been called upon to speak.

Through the eyes of an outsider, it seems that Second Church is very friendly within the confines of the congregation itself, but not with those outside the circle. Ivan comes to believe that what is written in a bulletin may not be what is happening in reality. He begins to discover that the operational value is really one of relational safety and familiarity.

A competent church leader must be able to detect both the professed and operational values in a congregation's culture. Simply asking for a list of values may reveal only the espoused values, not the operational ones.

It is frequently here that the tension between dreams and reality surface. Worthwhile, genuinely established operational values emerge only as trust is built by penetrating the culture over an extended period of time.

This problem, however, can be dealt with much more quickly by the introduction of intentional and well processed change in the group. While change does have a way of producing conflict, conflict frequently reveals both the professed and operational values in a group. The ability to endure the conflict that arises from needed change requires a great deal of trust, honesty, integrity, and group fortitude.

Shared assumptions

Frequently, during this process, a fourth culture layer emerges: the shared basic assumptions of the group. These assumptions, often unexpressed, unexamined, and even unconscious, evolve over a long period of time. During the early stages of an organization's development, things are tried, tested, and examined. As these solutions begin to work, what was once a hypothesis supported by a hunch or a value comes to be treated as established reality.

Over the course of time (especially after the "founding fathers" are gone), the assumptions and beliefs that underscore those early established solutions become unconscious to the group, even though they may be enthusiastically practiced. They are just assumed. Over time, these assumptions come to be so strongly established that the members of a congregation will find values or behavior based on any other premise virtually unimaginable.

There are a number of general cultural dimensions or arenas that a leader can examine as he or she seeks to ascertain an organization's (a congregation's) basic assumptions. The broadest expression of these may be the five outlined by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck.8 These are the nature of truth and reality as understood in the organization, the nature of human nature, the nature of human relation ships, the nature of time and space, and the nature of human activity.

How a congregation makes sense of these dimensions goes far in revealing the underlying, often tacit assumptions at work within the group.

Understanding this dimension helps to explain why it is difficult for one local church to transplant a methodology from another local congregation—especially if the "transplant" has to cross significantly distant cultural lines.

Every method and every strategy bears invisible markers that provide the underpinnings for their actual operation in a given cultural setting. Like an iceberg, the vast scope of these markers lies far below the waterline of the culture.

For example, while seeking to strengthen the "empowering leader ship" category from the natural church development model, the leader must take into account the host culture's sense of what "empowering leadership" actually looks like within the context of the culture in which he or she seeks its unfolding.

If First Church in Miami—consisting largely of immigrant Caribbean people in the southern United States— is going to address this category in their congregation, it might not be best to attempt to take the methodology used by Second Church in Minneapolis—a largely Scandinavian, century-old congregation in the North. The shared assumptions are simply too disparate to assume an easy, unprocessed transplantation.


If it takes a long time to identify the underlying values of a culture, it takes an even longer time and a greater amount of investment and intentionality for people—leaders included—to engage in the dangerous prospect of evaluating the basic assumptions of that culture. It is at this point that personal existential anxiety and organizational anxiety find their hottest presence. It was precisely at this point that the religious and political leaders of Jesus' day decided to sacrifice one man for the salvation of the culture.9

Rarely can this kind of evaluation occur without significant conflict. Conflict serves as a threshold for deeper-level engagement. It is precisely because these are deepest-level investments that the passions are awakened in individuals and groups. Engaging these deeper levels thrusts the whole person and thus the whole culture into the throes of debate and disagreement.

Whether it be Martin Luther King Jr. questioning the cultural assumptions regarding race, Gandhi raising the issue of assumptions about freedom and autonomy, or Nelson Mandela identifying and bringing into bold focus the assumptions behind the governance of his nation, each recognized that the indispensable transformation that was needed could not occur under the status quo. They understood that conflict was vital to transformation, and each approached conflict nonviolently.

Cultures and organizations who blindly discourage conflict make it virtually impossible for better things to come into being. Thus, a dilemma materializes: The very component necessary for furthering the health of moment it struggles to come into existence. 10

Unless cultures engage in this change activity, sustainable transformation cannot occur. Cultures—and congregations—can seek to rearrange artifacts, even dream of raising significant values, but unless these tacit assumptions are brought to the surface, acknowledged, and adjusted, attempts at change will be frustrated, shallow, and temporary.

It can be plausibly suggested, in fact, that change may occur on the first three levels we've identified, but transformation can occur only at this deeper fourth level.

A church that changes the time of its worship service is not necessarily a church transformed. An organization that adapts the value of dialogue is an organization undergoing change but not transformation." God in His supreme wisdom understood this distinction, as demonstrated by a gospel that went far beyond artifacts and values. If a man, a woman, or a congregation is to be transformed, it has to begin at the basic level of human existence. As a leader, Jesus was interested not in sin management but in soul transformation. 12

The leader's challenge

The deeper a leader challenges the various levels of the culture, the more resistance and conflict emerge, and the more danger the leader faces. Intuitively most engaged in this process recognize this danger and seek to offset it by finding solutions that remain first at the artifact level and then, if compelled, at the value level.

People are in search of answers rather than questions. But at the level where required meaning for the existence of the culture is generated, questioning the validity of long cherished and unexamined assumptions can be interpreted as dangerous; in fact it almost always is seen to be so. If "organizing is first and foremost grounded in agreements concerning what is real and illusory," 13 questions focused on what is real and illusory by nature will generate the most heat (and one hopes) light. For this reason, a leader must always look below the waterline. The leader must go beyond the artifact level, below the espoused value level, to the level of the operational value.

Yet even this is not enough. Surfacing, examining, and addressing the underlying assumptions of a culture become important if the intention is to transform.

As we head into deep and unprecedented shifts in the composition of our global community, the worthiness of the gospel and the urgency of our message require a spiritual sensitivity undergirding our ways of leading, ways that honor both the Creator and His creation.

Whatever the culture in which we are given a leadership role, we must look below the waterline to where the essence of that culture is found, to where change, real change, must and can take place.

1 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity {Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

2 Increased life expectancy.

3 Whereas at the turn of this century the percentage of non-Hispanic whites was a little less than 72 percent, by 2050 that population will be hovering around 53 percent.

4 U.S Census Bureau, "National Population Projections," accessed on February 10, 2005. <http://www.census.gov/

5 Ibid, 15.

6 Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2nd edition, 1992), 17. The layers of culture that follow derive from Schein's work.

7 Ibid., 19. Schein does not make this distinction. I have added the "operational values" based upon the work of Chris Argyris and Don Schon in Theory and Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1974).

8 Florence Rockwood Kluckhohn and Fred L. Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientations (Westport, Conn : Greenwood Press Publishers, 1976), 10-20.

9 Recall the words of Caiaphas speaking prophetically, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50). All biblical quotations taken from the New International Version unless otherwise specified.

10 Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 31-48. Heifetz and Linsky identify four forms used to equalize conflict and reestablish stability: marginalization, diversion, direct attack, or seduction.

11 William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York: Currency and Doubleday), 1999.

12 "Soul" is not used in the theological sense of mortal or immortal substance but in the sense used by Dallas Willard as "that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of the self. It is the life-center of the human being" (emphasis his). Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 199.

13 Karl E. Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing (New York: McGraw-HiM, Inc., 2nd edition, 1979), 3.



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John Grys is director of Advent House and editor of the forthcoming Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, Knoxville, Tennessee

July/August 2005

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