61. Resolving Intercultural Tensions 2: Understanding Leadership in High and Low Power Distance Contexts

NOTE: A companion workshop to these articles is available to multi-ethnic churches that provides information, exercises and interaction to encourage the implementation of those disciplines that promote healthy intercultural relationships. Please contact Mark via the Contact Me form.

The Power Distance Contrast

Pir with disciplesIn Pakistan there is a strong tradition of “holy men” who are called Pirs. One day I had a visit from a young man who informed me that he was the Pir of his village. I was puzzled by this because he was dressed in modern clothes and did not have the religious, spiritual air one would expect from a revered holy man. He explained that in the tradition of his tribe, the honor and authority of the Pir was passed on from father to son and his father had recently passed away. For his part, he did not believe that he was able to give blessings to people, nor that his prayers were especially efficacious. In fact, when his father died and the mantle was passed on to him, he tried to refuse it.

HPD = High Power Distance

He told the people that he didn’t believe and that he didn’t want the responsibility. They replied, “It does not matter what you believe. You are the one chosen for this position and no other.” Pakistan is a High Power Distance culture (HPD). 1 It is the role and status of the leader, rather than his or her particular character or ability that is of greatest concern. In this context a high priority is given to maintaining harmonious relationships and affirming the historical traditions and social structures. Rules of conduct are paramount, and anyone who does not function within that protocol is ostracized, no matter how reasonable or beneficial their proposals might be. In HPD cultures, it is assumed that the status quo is the way life is intended to be; the established hierarchy is ordained, competition is bad, and conformity to tradition and roles is good.

LPD = Low Power Distance

Canada, on the other hand, is a Low Power Distance culture (LPD). Titles and status mean little if the person in charge cannot fulfill their responsibilities. Harmonious relationships may be sacrificed in order to pursue a particular goal and the measurement of success is accomplishment. In LPD cultures, it is assumed that reversal of fortunes is a part of life, competition is good and no one has ordained or fated priority.

When I was doing my master’s thesis on Chronological Bible Storying among the Sindhi people on the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), one aspect that the Sindhis who were interviewed emphasized over and over again was the importance of the disciple to always obey the teacher. They were appalled at Peter’s audacity when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet, and they found Jesus’ stern response, “You will not have any part of me,” to be necessary and appropriate. HPD cultures, like Pakistan, consider the student insubordinate and rude who would question or contradict a teacher. Rote learning is the preferred method of learning as it emphasizes the teacher’s status above the student. In contrast, a teacher in a LPD culture like Canada encourages the student to challenge and question. Ideas and the stimulation of the mind are of first importance.

Due to Power Distance, leadership within a LPD context will function differently than within HPD groups. Awareness of this dynamic in interpersonal relationships along with appropriate adjustments can greatly reduce tension in multicultural churches.

The Cross-Cultural Leadership Dilemma

LPD: Authoritative, unilateral decisions … make the members feel marginalized and unnecessary

In a LPD culture, the leader is working with people who see each other as equals and believe that healthy relationships are characterized through an even handed give and take of ideas and input. Authoritative, unilateral decisions from the leadership make the members feel marginalized and unnecessary. To feel a part of the group, the members provide significant contributions in an atmosphere of cooperation and team work. This orientation is due to the cultural influences prevalent in LPD societies. In Serving with Eyes Wide Open, David Livermore provides the following illustration of how we enculturate our children into this mindset, “[My wife] Linda and I have had African friends in our home who are amazed at the amount of voice we give our girls in everyday decisions. It’s second nature in the morning, let them pick out the clothes they’re going to wear, offer them options of things we could do together on the weekend, and encourage them to ask the “why” question. We as Americans score much lower on the power-distance scale than most African cultures do.” 2

HPD: Authoritative, uncontested decisions … provide a sense of stability and security

In contrast, a HPD culture is guided by priorities that maintain the hierarchical status quo. The role of the leader must be constantly reaffirmed through a number of gestures and responses (bowing, titles, submission, seating arrangements, etc.). The leader controls the flow of ideas and all ideas are vetted by the leader in private before being presented before others. Authoritative, uncontested decisions from the leader provide a sense of stability and security. These decisions are based upon prior negotiations, networking and relationships established before any formal announcement. An Iranian student studying in the States revealed this view of authority with his comment, “The first time my professor told me, ‘I don’t know the answer-I will have to look it up,’ I was shocked. I asked myself, ‘Why is he teaching me?’ In my country a professor would give a wrong answer rather than admit ignorance.” 3

Why do people from a HPD setting, such as a pastor from Korea, find it difficult to take up leadership responsibilities in a LPD context like Canada?

HPD: It is hard … to constantly face challenges to their authority

It is hard for a person from a HPD context to constantly face challenges to their authority. Their pronouncements will not only be questioned but they may be contradicted in the presence of others. They will need to deal with actions and speech that the default understanding through their HPD grid will interpret as insubordination, power struggle and insult. Thus, even if invited directly, people from a HPD context will often refuse participation in leadership roles in a LPD context such as a typical congregational Canadian church, because they have seen how decisions are made. They have witnessed the way leaders are, in their eyes, insulted, contradicted, and undermined. While they may admire the graciousness and persistence of the leader, they do not believe that they could handle that stress and perceived disrespect. The price is too great.

LPD: contrasting views are not considered rude or an affront to the teacher

In a LPD context, the leader can act as a facilitator rather than the expert and decision maker and people will respond because their contrasting views are not considered rude or an affront to the teacher. However, for HPD group members to volunteer information that presents new thoughts or ideas runs the risk of contradicting, displeasing or undermining the authority or status of the teacher. Even when assured that this is not the case for an LPD leader and it is acknowledged intellectually, the feeling of rudeness persists because of the strength and influence of their native culture. For example, I tend to be HPD oriented when it comes to children showing respect to adults by using a title (e.g., mister, uncle) rather than the adult’s first name. Even though I know that the child is not being rude, it still feels rude.

LPD leaders, such as those brought up in a Canadian context, are oriented towards efficiency, open communication and working on a level playing field. The default assumption is that the major decisions will be made during meetings where all can speak. However in HPD settings, there are dynamics of relationships that curb the freedom to speak within formal meetings or in the presence of people whose status requires silence or acquiescence. The successful leader must build relationships, understand the informal networking and hierarchy, and establish decisions well before the meeting. Unfortunately, for the LPD oriented leader, such networking seems inappropriate because such behavior is labeled as “lobbying,” “politics,” “going behind people’s backs,” or “manipulation” within an LPD context.

Furthermore, in a formal setting like a meeting, a LPD leader’s tendency will be to provide opportunity for people to participate, while being careful not to put anyone “on the spot.” Rather than a direct approach, the leader will ask people in general to “please come forward,” or “speak up.” However, for HPD oriented people it is considered rude to volunteer unless they are a recognized leader representing a particular group because it will be considered pushy or arrogant, and so they wait for a direct invitation. Unless they have been approached previously with an invitation to speak, they will be reluctant to volunteer information and run the danger of inadvertently contradicting the leader.

The LPD leader in the HPD setting will often seek to be a “servant leader” by not dominating the situation and will try to stimulate an ethos of equality and participation with the goal of joint decision making. This approach can easily be read as a lack of leadership by those more comfortable within a HPD context. For such people, a meeting is not an opportunity to work out decisions, but the place where the leader outlines previously determined decisions.

An LPD leader often considers signs of status as distracting or as a temptation to personal pride. Rather than accepting the subservience of others, they try to deflect and distribute the accolades. In a HPD culture this can be read as an abdication of responsibility or even an insult because the duly earned status has been rejected. This dynamic can be observed in Hollywood movies set within a HPD time period or context. Such movies are made for LPD audiences and if the hero is from a noble class, he or she inevitably has a low power distance mindset and deflects their assigned status by declaring equality with the serfs or promoting ability and practical skill as the true mark of greatness. Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is a typical example as he constantly downplays any role based on aristocracy and promotes the virtues of courage and ability as the criteria for leadership.

In addition, the LPD leader may misread a HPD situation and dominate the agenda without doing the preliminary work of gaining the input and support of people through relationship building outside of the formal meeting setting. Although the meeting may appear to function smoothly with clear direction and agreement, it will quickly become apparent through the lack of conformity to the decisions made that what appeared to be consensus was, in reality, silent protest.

In contrast, the “image of a good leader [in the HPD context] is an octopus who has its tentacles extended into the different parts of the community. This person has a network of trusted people who give him or her information about what the community wants, who wishes to participate, has the gifts to fulfill the tasks. This person spends a lot of time before a meeting to acquire the essential information. At the meeting, the concept of invitation becomes very important because no one will volunteer. The leader has to invite people directly to offer their ideas and services.”4

Leadership in a Multicultural setting

LPD:quick to respond to general invitations to voice their opinions

In a multicultural setting5 the dynamic becomes even more complex and the potential for failure increases. Participants from a low power distance context, such as Canada, are quick to respond to general invitations to voice their opinions and they feel free to do so. They are displeased with a leader who stifles participation and seeks to control the decision making process. In order to be true participants, LPD members must engage others in open discussion with the decision undecided for a time.

HPD:the longer they are not directly addressed, the more they sense that they are not valued or respected

However, people from a high power distance context, such as India or Mexico, wait for the leader to tell them what to do and to acknowledge them directly. Without a direct invitation they will keep silent and the longer they are not directly addressed, the more they sense that they are not valued or respected and as a result they feel marginalized. For LPD oriented people, a general invitation is sufficient and they will participate, expecting everyone to read the situation the same way. Because of this dynamic LPD participants will often become vocally frustrated by what they perceive as a controlling leader (resulting in increased tension), while the HPD members will be silently and unobtrusively frustrated with the LPD members who are, from their perspective, insubordinate and disruptive.

HPD people speak through their leaders. Based on the status of the leader, what he or she says is intended to carry more weight than comments from an average member. Unfortunately, LPD participants with their democratic bias towards “one person, one vote” tend to hear the comments as one person’s opinion. Because LPD members value equality, many of them will take the opportunity to speak and will likely view the voice of the leader of the HPD oriented participants as carrying the same weight as their opinion, rather than recognizing that the comments reflect the views of a group. Eric Law provides a good illustration of the clash,

The method [of Bible study] I learned involved asking a series of questions coupled with an experiential exercise. The purpose of the exercise was to help the group delve deeper into the meaning of the text. I did not realize how culture-bound this method was until I facilitated a Bible study group for a Chinese-speaking group. Everything I learned about group process and facilitation of dialogue around scripture did not work. I would ask a question and the response was always a painful silence. I would ask for volunteers to participate in an experiential exercise. No one would volunteer. As a result, I ended up doing all the talking to explain what the text meant to me.6

Cultivating unity within a monocultural group can be difficult. Within a multicultural group the complexity is compounded and can bring a leader to frustration and despair. The dynamics explained above illustrate the problem, but there are disciplines and sensitivities that can be developed so that the cultural maze can be navigated and pitfalls avoided.

In the next article, I will propose a discipline of learning to hear and speak the “language” of respect within another cultural orientation that can help resolve intercultural tensions. In the final article, Eric Law’s innovative concept of “mutual invitation” will be explored as a method of developing productive interaction that can help bridge the power gap between HPD and LPD cultures.


Mark spends part of his time providing churches workshops in developing cultural sensitivity. If you are interested please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 The first article in this series, 60. Resolving Intercultural Tensions 1: Power Distance, provides an explanation of High and Low Power distance cultures.
  • 2 Livermore, David. 2006. Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks. p. 123.
  • 3 ibid.
  • 4 Law, Eric. 1993. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb. St. Louis: Chalice Press. p. 32
  • 5 In these article, cross-cultural refers to a person from one cultural orientation engaging a group of people with a different orientation. Multicultural describes a group of people with a variety of cultural orientations who have the opportunity to relate to each other. Intercultural is used to refer to the interaction between ethnic groups.
  • 6 Law. p. 30.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development