10 Reasons not to read American books on Leadership

10 Reasons not to read American books on Leadership

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“The things that go without being said are some of the most important parts of culture.” – E. Randolph Richards

I am not anti-American. Neither am I anti-leadership.

But I am going to list 10 reasons not to read American books on leadership, especially regarding church leadership.

These kind of books seem especially laden with tacit values that may have been contextually true in the place of writing, but are definitely not true in many other places.

1. Requirement of being a Linear-active planner, therefore eliminating most people in the world from ever being comfortable wearing this type of leadership

According to the Richard Lewis model of culture, most Multi-actives could not be successful leaders because they will not be strategic, logical, planned or on task, and most Reactives could not be successful leaders because they do not initiate, create or drive. The problem is, I know many godly, faithful and yes, successful leaders who break all of Maxwell’s laws and don’t cultivate any of Covey’s habits.

2. Homogenization of leadership personality type (the “Extrovert Ideal”)

Susan Cain in her popular book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking is good on this. Her book was extremely successful, but it hasn’t changed the ingrained American leadership culture. I can remember wishing I was a Myers Briggs ESTJ (because all the leaders I admired were ESTJs), even though I am INTP, an introvert.

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” – Susan Cain, Quiet

3. Efficiency is king

Efficiency is presupposed as being universally important (I blogged about efficiency in the “De-westernizing your faith” series). So much of American leadership theory seems to be about making better use of your time or resources. For example, pastoring through system: build a system of small groups and delegated authority. But in many places pastoring through small groups does not work. In fear-power cultures where it is all about the presence of the man of power, or in highly relational cultures, where you cannot delegate relationship to others.

Bernard Adeney (Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World) says it straight, “If peak efficiency and productivity are your goals, it is probably better not to enter another culture.”

You will neither be able to manage efficiently, nor is it necessarily right to do so.

4. Task orientation

Also arising from cultural difference, but task oriented leadership has a ruthlessness to it (many of us remember a well-known speaker encouraging us not to have friends as elders because it would be more difficult to fire them), which goes against our relational orientation. This changes your sense of intrinsic value, goals and measures of success.

For example, Maxwell’s Law of Connection: “Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand,” is implicitly task-oriented. An Easterner (often much more emotionally intelligent and tuned into social cues than Westerners) will instantly understand that you are just being nice to them because you want something. They will understand that you are building a functional relationship. Task-oriented Christianity will not succeed in the Majority World, and probably is not appropriate anywhere.

5. Individualism

In a group-oriented society the whole concept of one individual driving ahead of the others is not attractive. A Japanese proverb states, “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”

My wife has been asked by her managers to excel less at her job, because the gulf between her and her other work mates is growing. This is the “tall poppy syndrome.” If one poppy is taller than the rest it is ugly – cut it down. Going out ahead of the crowd is seen as negative in many places where uniformity is prized. If you could un-pick the “improve yourself” lens from most leadership books there would not be much left.

6. Generalizing principles (laws vs. exceptions)

Randall (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes) is brilliant on showing how generalizing principals into laws is a specifically Western way of seeing the world.

“In the West, rules must apply to everyone, and they must apply all the time.” – Randall, Misreading Scripture

Many leadership texts (Maxwell’s Indisputable Laws, Hybels’ Axiom, Covey’s Habits) come from a view of the world wherein there are universal or general principles – rules, laws that are always true. But this is a uniquely Western perspective. There are many cultures where this is not how the world is perceived.

Paul had a rule about not circumcising Gentile converts, but then broke his own rule in circumcising Timothy. Why? “Because of the Jews in that area” (Acts 16:3). For Paul, as a Middle Eastern man, relationships were more important than hard and fast principles. Relationships trumped rules.

So Westerners approach the book of Proverbs wrongly, assuming that it is promising them certain things when it is really not. And pastors read leadership books assuming that if they follow certain steps they will grow their church, and then are disappointed when it does not work out.

7. Assumption of primacy of the leader – leader is better than follower (no one says this outright but it is assumed)

“Don’t just employ people who can do things well, employ people who can get others to do things well!”

The problem is in the Scripture we are called to be followers, and obedience is prized above initiative.

8. Setting of an impossible bar

If success depends on effective leadership, this can result in legalism, frustration, driven-ness and burnout.

So many young UK leaders are trying to implement practices or methodology from the US and not seeing similar results because the UK is vastly different to the US, and because Brits are wired differently to Americans – and then living with a sense of failure because results are not what they expected.

Remember the classic quotation from Bill Hybels which has motivated so many young leaders: “The local church is the hope of the world, and its destiny rests primarily in the hands of its leaders”? I want to suggest that the “leadership generation” is struggling to bear this weight.

9. Presentation of a false way of evaluating success

I recently visited a church I had known 20 years ago: It was the same pastor and the same handful of families. My training tells me this church is a failure because it has not grown or developed. Leadership success is growth! In the very difficult national context, however, this church is a success because they have shown faithful endurance in a hostile environment (e.g. Rev 2:3).

10. Failure to equip for leadership in persecution

Leadership in Winter (from Niebuhr’s model, where the church is a persecuted minority) requires different, even contrary, skills to leadership in Summer (where the church is peaking in popularity).

My friend Andrey Bondarenko from the Ukraine commented on their churches during the ongoing crisis – “Some who were great leaders in peacetime couldn’t lead in time of war.”

I think the wholesale importing of one perspective on leadership is one of the reasons why burnout is endemic in some of our younger leaders.

I think this is one of the reasons why raising leaders cross culturally has been so hard for us.

I think this is one of our subconscious, benign neo-colonial impositions that has come with globalizing culture – especially, though by no means exclusively, in the church.

Andy M

Andy M

Andy is involved with cross-cultural church planting in the Middle East. Connect on Twitter.
Andy M

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