for missions and ministry


Cultural Intelligence in Practice

Entering the Gray

Get your mind around that!

Vicki, a worker living long term in Asia, was discussing some of the pressures of her regional leadership role with her coach. She mentioned the need to raise money not just for her family but also for 10 church-planters and their families who counted on them for income. Her coach was astonished and sputtered a bit to respond with an appropriate coaching question. She finally settled on, “What makes you feel responsible for their finances?”

Vicki explained that she and her husband had discipled these new Christians. They had mentored them as they grew their leadership skills, got married and had families, and moved out into new regions as church-planters. Vicki and her husband were seen by these well-loved national partners as “patrons”. In a Status culture society this implies the obligation to share resources, support, and advocacy. Vicki’s coach, an American, needed a while to get her mind around that! American culture is egalitarian, emphasizing individual agency and “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”.

Mental Flexibility

As we gain more experience in cross cultural coaching, the biggest challenge is flexing our mental understandings of concepts such as what makes ‘good coaching’, and what makes a ‘good leader’. Cross cultural researchers describe this as “increasing category width”. Rather than having a narrow band of what we think of as ‘good’ or ‘right’, cross cultural situations help us see the broad array of good and right possibilities. We must learn to enter into the gray of uncertainty at times with our clients. We must find the way that works for them. This takes mental flexibility.

What does ‘good leadership’ mean in Vicki’s context? The temptation of a Western coach would be to encourage Vicki to help her national partners be more independent. What Vicki needed, however, was to identify options that would both work for her and be appropriate in her host culture. Her coach chose mental flexibility, and the result was that Vicki determined on her own to initiate a several year program teaching specific skills in financing and fundraising. This was a way of advocating for her subordinates that was true to both Vicki’s needs and to the cultural context.


What experiences have you had in your cross cultural coaching relationships that have stretched you in regards to what is ‘good or ‘right’?  Where do you need to flex your understanding of what a “good leader” is?

tina author