Identifying leaders who are culturally different than you

Yesterday I spoke at my church’s bi-monthly leadership meeting on identifying leaders who are culturally different.  Like many other fairly diverse churches, my church struggles to attract and maintain a leadership team that reflects the diversity of the congregation. We tend to recruit and mentor leaders who are culturally similar, and thus maintain a homogenous leadership team. So my pastors thought it’d be fun and helpful to start a dialogue on this issue amongst the 60+ volunteer leaders who bravely and excellently lead our church. I started by leading everyone in an exercise[i] that was designed to help us see that we all have leadership preferences and that these preferences often differ across cultural lines. To start, each person spent five minutes listing every positive leadership characteristic that they could think of and then circling what they believed were the five most important characteristics on their list. Then each person paired up with a person who was culturally different (in terms of gender, race, generation, marital status, class, etc.) and spent about 10 minutes comparing lists and discussing how and why their lists were similar or different. Then I gave people the opportunity to share their findings with the entire group.

Next, I briefly shared the findings of the GLOBE leadership study focusing on the fact that while many leadership qualities are universally attractive or unattractive, a significant number also vary depending on one’s culture.globe For example, some cultures (e.g., mostly Eastern cultures) tend to perceive indirect leadership as a positive leadership quality whereas other cultures (mostly Western cultures) perceive it as a negative leadership quality. So if a Westerner is evaluating the leadership potential in an Easterner who has an indirect leadership style, the Westerner might conclude that the Easterner is not “leadership material” simply because the Easterner exhibits a style that is often perceived as negative in the Westerner’s culture.

Last, I shared three tips on identifying leaders across cultures

  1. It’s helpful to acknowledge that we all have preferences that can easily turn into biases that lead us to identify “greatness” in similar others and prevent us from seeing “greatness” in culturally different others.  When I was a grad student, I managed a lab of about 25 undergrad research assistants. About one year into my tenure, I realized that all of the RAs I had hired were almost exactly like me in terms of personality, learning style, communication style and work ethic.  And for good reason – it was simply easier to mentor and manage people were similar.  They understood my communication style, easily interpreted my non-verbals, accomplished tasks in a way that seemed logical to me, laughed at my jokes, and were easy to guilt-trip…er, motivate.  As a busy grad student, I simply didn’t have time for RAs who were totally different than me and approached our research work in a way that seemed “illogical.” This hiring pattern was great for me, but not great for lab diversity.  But once I acknowledged my own hiring bias, I was able to interview people with an eye for seeing “greatness” in people who were different than me.  In fact, one research study showed that simply acknowledging our potential bias makes us less susceptible to it.
  2.  It’s good to keep in mind that research studies have shown that when identifying potential leaders, people often identify culturally-similar others based on their potential but tend to identify culturally-different others based on their proven track record Those who are culturally similar to us are “known quantities”(we basically know what to expect from them), so we feel more comfortable promoting them based on their potential (which we can easily imagine). But those who are culturally different have more of an “x-factor” (we don’t know what to expect) so we typically require a proven track record before we give them more responsibility.  If we're not careful, we can unknowingly require culturally different people to prove themselves in ways we don't ask culturally similar people to. This biased pattern can prevent us from promoting the great culturally-different leaders around us.
  3. It’s worth noting that successfully recruiting non-majority members to join the leadership team often involves extending personal invitations. For example, many churches make blanket announcements inviting all (or many) people to consider being leaders.  But these blanket announcements are often ineffective in attracting minority members. When you’re a minority, and you see that most of the leaders are majority members, it’s easy to assume that the blanket call is directed to the majority people and not to you. So, it’s important for existing leaders to personally ask minority members to respond to the call. And keep asking!

Our entire conversation lasted about 35 minutes (including the activity). The feedback I’ve received so far is that the time we spent talking about these issues stimulated a lot of thinking and dialogue that has extended beyond the meeting. Obviously, the conversation was limited in its scope but it helped us to examine our own assumptions and biases and begin to think outside-of-the-cultural-box when it comes to leadership development.  It would be fairly easy for others to do this (or something similar) with their leadership teams or friend groups.

Thoughts? What are some other tactics we can use to identify and attract culturally-different leaders?

Blessings, friends!



[i] I first learned this exercise in a Fuller Seminary class on diversity and leadership that was taught by the great Dr. Roger Heuser.