No need to fear the culture trap
I grew up in South Africa, nick-named the Rainbow Nation. It doesn’t get more colorful than on the southern tip of the Dark Continent. We have 11 official languages and many others spoken in numbers too small to win recognition, but large enough to form subcultures with their own food, dress, delights and dislikes.
Dislikes. Avoidances. Irritations. These words often come up in the same breath as cultural diversity, don’t they? As leaders, we often have to face the challenge of both deep and superficial differences in the workplace.
We try to be sensitive to the sensitivities. We pick our words with utmost care, because we know we are stepping on holy ground here, separated from a slippery slope by a very fine line of political correctness.
Differences can hurt
When cultural differences are at stake, we can be dealing with hurt—ancient pain or fresh blood – and we can offend without meaning to.
Jesus had to walk the line too. He had a very clear vision and mission, and at a particular point, that mission made an almost offensive distinction between cultures. In fact, there was a day when a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter from demonic possession, but Jesus seemed less than eager to do so, because he came “first for the house of Israel.”
Jesus insinuated that healing her daughter, while He still had so much healing to do among the Jews, would be akin to feeding the dogs while the children were still hungry! (Read the story in Matthew 15.) Wasn’t this politically incorrect? Wasn’t it hurtful?
On another occasion, Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well. When He asked her for water, she pointed out how inappropriate the request actually was – Jesus being a Jew and she being a Samaritan woman.
She was right: He was breaking a number of taboos just by being alone with her and talking to her. He was not politically correct on this occasion either.
Differences should not be denied
In leadership today, in pursuit of collaboration, we too may sometimes be expected to cross barriers that have not been crossed and to make requests or offers that could be misrepresented or rejected on cultural grounds. It inhibits us. We may feel it is “too soon.” It makes us choose the more familiar paths, doesn’t it?
If the point of visionary leadership is to take our team towards the new and the better, will we ever get there by trying to smooth over the differences, or even by denying them? In the process of avoiding the trap, we don’t get any closer to a unifying vision, do we?
Jesus showed us how to put our foot right in the culture trap and to keep it there until the truth stands out. Not just any truth, but a very important truth about our differences …
Surfacing the sensitivities
Jesus and this Samaritan woman both bravely crossed the line, with a little lively debate! She started it by playing the race card, then by claiming the well as a gift from her ancestor Jacob, mocking Jesus for insinuating He had better water to offer than Jacob’s well could give. She intentionally instigated the “us and ours, you and yours” game. It came from a painful past.
When Jesus exposed her sin, she struck back by raising the very divisive point about where God should be worshipped. This was clearly an open nerve ending. The Samaritans did not come to the “real” temple, the best place where God was. They had their own place of worship that the Jews, God’s chosen people, refused to recognize.
She wanted Jesus, the Prophet, to take sides. One could say she wanted Him to declare one culture good and the other bad—one right and one wrong—once and for all.
This conversation could have gotten out of hand. Jesus and this woman could have dwelt on their differences all day long. However, something changed right then in the story, and we can learn from it.
Visionary leadership bridges the gap
Jesus made a startling declaration when He said, “Woman … believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21). He was effectively saying, “Neither your culture nor that of the Jews has all truth. Truth is bigger than Jewish and Samaritan beliefs. You have some colors, the Jews have others. Neither of them can paint the whole rainbow. But God can, does and will.”
With His words, Jesus built a bridge without compromising his culture or expecting her to abandon hers. He painted a vision to accomplish that. A vision big enough to allow them both to be wrong, and yet also to be right. Culture stopped mattering altogether.
Visionary leadership drives the mission
When we as leaders establish a vision that is bigger than the selfish desires that serve only segments of society, and larger than culturally specific ideals, we also establish a vision that benefits all of humanity, and is powerful enough to bring our entire team into motion.
Our Tall Trees Profiles team in South-Africa has such a vision. This vision echoes in the hearts of our 200 plus facilitators and coaches: There is hope and healing for every individual, marriage, team and community. We came to believe that our mission is worthwhile, through what we’ve learned from our country’s blood-stained history and through personal experiences that crossed the cultural divide in life-giving ways.
The Rainbow Nation, birthed out of the abuses of apartheid, human rights violations and blatant segregation and oppression, was born because of visionary leadership from the greatest leader my motherland ever knew—the late Nelson Mandela.
Mandela understood that the greatest visions, missions and strategies would come to nothing until we embraced the truth: We don’t need to change one another, to swallow one another’s cultures into one grey conformity, but rather to let each bring his authentic color to the bigger picture—quite literally.
In Africa, there is a concept known as 'ubuntu' — the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others. —Nelson Mandela
We will fail to accomplish the profound missions we post in our lobbies and on our websites, as long as we keep believing that there are cultures we simply don’t need and differences that are only bothersome.
We’d be very arrogant to think like this. Because even Jesus was thirsty one day, and a Samaritan woman was the only helper at the well. However, when we expand our vision beyond the short-sightedness of our own culture, we start grasping the nature of transformational leadership—the kind that can turn an adulteress into a missionary!
Photo source: istock
Hettie Brittz is married and has three children. She was born and raised in South Africa. She is the Director of Tall Trees Profiles, a leadership and relationship coaching company, and the Founder of Evergreen Parenting, a ministry that equips families and educators with discipleship tools. Her motto is “Know your design; live your purpose,” and she is a firm believer that there is hope for every individual and relationship. She's the author of several parenting books and a traveling speaker. She hunts, hikes and loves good coffee.
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