Geography of Power


If you have ever visited an administrative official in another culture you know that this event can be a most memorable or a rather disappointing experience.

Memorable, because you may discover that in some places leadership is accompanied with fascinating symbols of power, dignity and deference. Disappointing, because you find your high hopes dashed by what feels like a whim. At moments like this you have come face to face with the reality of power and powerlessness.

Encountering the Powerful

How do you greet a person in power? Faced with the prospect of meeting an official you soon realize that your usual instincts, finely tuned by experience in your own country, do not necessarily serve you well. You don’t want to offend him or her, and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. But do you shake hands or not?

If you do shake hands, how firmly? With or without an embrace? At what point is a bear hug appropriate? In some places you may wonder about greeting with a kiss? One cheek-which one? Both cheeks? Three times or even four (that depends on the region even in France)? Other cultures may require a bow? But how deep?

It is true that shaking hands will serve you well in most cultures, but if you are a man in an Arab country don’t do what I did when visiting a female official in Brunei, a strictly Muslim country.

When the moment came to greet her, old habits on autopilot just took over. You guessed right: Unforgivably, I extended my hand to the woman who graciously tolerated my fauz pas. My colleagues at the mission institute were less forgiving because I should have known.

The Powerful and the Powerless

Missionaries in culture shock may be tempted to dismiss all this “fuss” with ritual and formality as superficiality. Yet rituals are not just useless forms. As visible behaviors, they reflect the host culture’s worldview and deeper values.

In high-context cultures, they can communicate the subtleties of status, power, and ‘pride in an almost infinite variety of styles and techniques that I am not used to coming from a low-context culture. Experience also tells us that cultures have developed distinctive patterns on how power is used and how the powerful relate to the powerless.

Take for instance North Americans who pride themselves on valuing egalitarian relationships. Sure politicians have a certain power but they better make good use of it to solve problems-a rather utilitarian view of power. I have just been reading Michael Watkins’s article on “Obama’s First 90 Days” in the Harvard Business Review of June 2009 in which he grades the US president’s early attempts to build momentum for change. He gives him an A-. Even the president is accountable to the people.

In other cultures, leaders are not held accountable for performance. They enjoy great social status and command dignity and respect. Those without power depend on them for their own welfare and security and seem to be content with their different status.

Leaders rule without having to endure the endless questioning of their authority even though they may not be insensitive to the concerns of those they lead. There seems to be a great distance between those in power and those who live under their authority.

This “power distance” plays out in families: children are taught to respect their parents and to obey without questioning.

It plays out in schools: students are expected to treat their teachers with respect and accept their authority.

It plays out in organizations including churches: hierarchy in organizations is thought to reflect a natural order of things.

Leaders are expected to tell subordinates what to do. Initiative by subordinates may, therefore, be seen as subversive. Assuming that all persons are equal in such a cultural setting is naive. Contrary to Western notions of equality, social inequality may be seen as desirable.

Mapping Power Distance

To understand the degree of expected social inequality and power difference endorsed by a community, anthropologists and cross-cultural researchers use the term “power distance”.

The following table gives you an idea of the main differences between high and low power distance societies as described by Hofstede. The GLOBE study involving over 1000 researchers has added even more insights into the geography of power in the world (House 2004, Chhokar 2006).

Small Power Difference Large Power Difference   
Inequalities should be minimizedInequalities are both expected and desired
There should be interdependence between the less and more powerfulThe less powerful should be dependent on the more powerful
Parents treat children as equalsParents teach children obedience
Children treat parents as equalsChildren treat parents with respect
Teachers expect initiatives from students in classTeachers are expected to take all the initiatives in class
Teachers are experts who are transferring impersonal truthsTeachers are gurus who transfer personal wisdom
Students treat teachers as equalsStudents treat teachers with respect
More educated persons hold less authoritarian values than less educated personsBoth more and less educated persons show almost equally authoritarian values
Hierarchy in orgs means an inequality of roles, established for convenienceHierarchy in organizations reflects the existential inequality between higher-ups and lower downs
Decentralization is popularCentralization is popular
Narrow salary range between top and bottom of organizationWide salary range between top and bottom of organization
Subordinates are expected to be consultedSubordinates expect to be told what to do
The ideal boss is a resourceful democratThe ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat or a good father
Privileges and status symbols are frowned uponPrivileges and status symbols for leaders are both expected and popular

Hofstede’s power distance index indicates that countries like Malaysia, Guatemala, Philippines, Mexico, and Arab countries value high power distance practices. Austria, Israel, the Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain and the USA value low power distance. The more recent GLOBE study was not as conclusive.

Implications for Missionaries

What are the implications of power distance differences for missionaries? This is a question I am grappling with and need your help with. Power distance reflects deeply held values of a society that may differ from the values of our culture of origin.

For instance, high power distance cultures may not value the practices of shared leadership and accountability for results expected in low power distance countries. Instead, they may expect their leaders to be conscious of their status and privilege while being caring and benevolent towards those they lead.

Before we condemn the practices of other cultures we may want to heed the advice of Duane Elmer who suggests in his book Cross-cultural Servanthood (2006) that before we rush to conclusions we may have to first be willing to step out of our comfort zone and open ourselves to others, accept them as they are, build trust, learn not only about them but with them and from them, in order to truly understand them.

When we have truly opened ourselves up to learning their ways and understanding their reasons, the question of how to express the heart of a servant as a leader is more relevant than ever for a church that is a truly global church.

How do Biblical principles inform how we lead in cultures that value low power distance? How do they inform how we lead in high power distance cultures? These are questions that need answers.

As cross-cultural workers, we have a unique vantage point that allows us to participate in what we observe.

Have you come to a place where you are able to also critique your own assumptions? What have you observed that seems to work or not work? What has given you joy or caused you grief?

Do you have some examples that illustrate leadership and its relationships to authority and power?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

By Erich Baumgartner

Erich Baumgartner, a former associate director of the Institute of World Mission, is currently Professor of Leadership and Intercultural Communication in the School of Education at Andrews University.

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