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4 Requirements to Lead across Cultures

  • David Ireland
  • Updated Nov 15, 2018
4 Requirements to Lead across Cultures

To effectively influence across cultures four intentional actions must be taken by a cross-cultural leader. He or she must be able to:

  1. Liberate the people.
  2. Listen to the people.
  3. Lead the people.
  4. Love the people.

When these four actions are employed, rest assured you will have remarkable influence across all cultures. Good leadership is never resisted, at least not for long. Everyone celebrates when their team wins. No one likes being on a losing team.

1. Liberate the People.

Since leadership is influence, effective leaders spend quite a bit of time locating the people. Where are they emotionally? Where are they in their commitment to the group? And certainly where are they in their view of the gospel presentation? Two behavioral scientists, Paglis and Greene, defined leadership this way: “Leadership is the process of diagnosing where the work group is now and where it needs to be in the future, and formulating a strategy for getting there. Leadership also involves implementing change through developing a base of influence with followers, motivating them to commit to and work hard in pursuit of change goals, and working with them to overcome obstacles to change.”[i]

You cannot lead a multicultural group or department if you have no idea where they are in their view of things. Successful leaders observe and listen. They are looking for clues, key information that will aid them in providing answers that will guide their diverse constituency toward the organizational goals. In a church context, we cannot lead a diverse team if we have not discovered their take on how Jesus is being presented to them. Are their souls being fed? Do they regularly encounter God in worship? These questions are critical for locating where a person is in their satisfaction with the church and with the Lord. And finding the answers boils down to how you present your views regarding the doctrine of salvation.

The leader’s job is to liberate the people from all sorts of bondage. At the launch of Jesus’s ministry He announced, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He [God] has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Notice, Jesus told us His entire ministry is about liberation and if that is the intent of our Master’s focus, we must follow suit in a multicultural context.

2. Listen to the People.

Listening is a difficult but learnable skill. It requires patience, focus, and certainly the alignment of outcomes. You should want the same outcome as the person to whom you’re listening. You both should want a Christ-glorifying solution to the problem or conflict being discussed. When you listen, you demonstrate care, empathy, and the fact the other person has value and worth. This is critical, especially in a multiethnic setting.

In his book, Black and White Styles in Conflict, Thomas Kochman, professor of communication and theater at the University of Illinois, writes: “When I meet minority students in my classes for the first time, I know that where I stand with respect to issues and my personal philosophy will be as important to them as what I know about their language and culture. I also know that I need to indicate where I am going with the information. Consequently, information is presented not just as an interesting set of facts but for the sake of argument. Argument in turn is presented for the sake of persuasion, and persuasion for the sake of social change.”[ii] Kochman is implying his lectures have much to do with his ability to listen to his ethnically diverse students if he’s to influence them. He cannot influence them if they don’t feel heard. Listening is a critical component in leadership.

The Bible doesn’t come right out and say it, but we can extract from the text that Barnabas was listening to the people. Either they voiced the need for new senior leadership or Barnabas brought it up once he saw his inadequacy. Regardless the origin, Barnabas was listening to the people—either with his ears or with his heart. The result was amazing. Paul was brought in as the lead pastor and the church continued to experience growth, and growth across cultures (Acts 11:26).

In 2005, I served as a member of the executive committee for the Billy Graham crusade held in New York City—the last one of his life. I took away thousands of lessons about walking in humility, staying focused on the mission of the gospel, and maintaining Christ-centered living amidst pluralism. But one lesson I’ll never forget is the unwavering commitment of the Graham organization to include every culture and ethnic group in the planning stages of the crusade. Each month we met, the Asian, African American, Caucasian, Native American, Latino, and Messianic Jewish communities were all represented in the strategy room. If the intent of the crusade was to reach the whole city, a cross-section of the cultures of the city was needed in the planning stages. The Graham organization modeled the importance of listening to qualify themselves to lead across cultures.

3. Lead the People.

In the early days of my ministry, I used to regularly complain to my wife that I didn’t have the leaders I needed to get the job done. One day, Marlinda reached her limit of my complaining. She said, in a very pleasant yet challenging manner, “Why don’t you do something about it rather than complain?”

She hit the ball back into my court, and it forced me to come up with a strategy to develop leaders. Seldom do people come to us ready-made. They need work. They need coaching and mentoring.

When people were turning to Jesus left and right from across the cultural divide, the Scripture says, “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (Acts 11:22–23, italics mine). God’s grace was at work in bridging the culture gap and uniting people around the message of Jesus Christ. I love how Bible teacher James Ryle defines grace. He says, Grace is the empowering presence of God enabling you to be who God created you to be, and to do what God has called you to do.[iii]

We must pray God’s grace goes into effect in our churches and communities. Without it, it will be humanly impossible to build healthy cross-cultural ministries no matter how effective our leadership is. We need God’s help to please God. And, we need God’s help to please people, His multicultural people. That’s the bottom line.

4. Love the People.

I remember asking a Chinese leader in my neighboring state of New York, "How can I reach the Chinese within my northern New Jersey community?" His answer was simple yet profound. He said, “Love their children and you’ll win them.” He unpacked his statement a little further. “Offer programs for kids,” he said. “If you can demonstrate to the parents that you love their kids, you’ll win the parents over,” he continued. I’ve endeavored to integrate his “love strategy” into my evangelistic practices.

The difficulty, at least for me, is my actions of love sometimes are not interpreted as such. They are often interpreted as merely opportunities for family ministry. I’m still working on the messaging of our outreaches so people will sense our love for them. It’s like helping your children understand your parental actions are steeped in love. Sometimes they don’t see that. They just eat the cereal, shove the chair under the table when finished, and then run off and play. It may take years for them to see that buying their favorite cereal, ensuring there’s milk in the fridge, bowls and spoons in the cupboard, and a table and chair to eat on are expressions of your love. Yet, you get up every morning and go through the same parental practices knowing that they are too immature, too disconnected from the finer points of adult reality, to recognize what you’ve done and will continue doing for them.

If you think about it on a higher level, a more theological one, God’s loving actions toward humanity have been gravely misunderstood and viewed as insignificant.  Yet, it was His one and only Son who was sacrificed on the cross as a display of His redemptive love for each of us.  Yet, how many people live their lives without considering the magnitude of this most generous gift to mankind? Our ignorance of God’s loving actions doesn’t deter Him from remaining faithful.  Let’s follow His lead and love people across the cultural divide even if our actions are taken for granted.

Adapted from David Ireland's new book, One in Christ: Bridging Racial and Cultural Divides. Used with permission.

David Ireland is the lead pastor of Christ Church (, a multi-site multiracial congregation in New Jersey. Ireland serves as a diversity consultant to the NBA and also leads chapel services for the New York Giants, New York Jets, and the U.S. Pentagon. He has written over twenty books and appeared on The Dr. Phil Show, CBS Evening News, and The 700 Club.

[i]Paglis, L. L., Greene, S. G. (2002). Leadership Self-Efficacy and Managers’ Motivation for Leading Change. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 215-235.
[ii]Thomas Kochman, Black and White Styles in Conflict (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 3.
[iii]. James Ryle, “GRACE—God’s Unspeakable Gift,” Identity Network,