How Authoritarian Leaders Could Lead

Guest blogger Arley Loewen (Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies) has lived in Afghanistan and published several books, including a short novel, where he explores honor-shame themes.  He now directs an international media project and teaches leadership seminars, through which he analyzes modern leadership in honor-shame societies.

I frequently ask workshop participants to discuss strengths and weaknesses between an authoritarian (power, position) leader, and a people leader. Normally, the “people leader” receives a much better rating. Indeed, we all appreciate a leader who is nice, sits down with us for a cup of tea, and relates to us as a friend.

But after a few minutes of discussion, someone in the workshop blurts out, “But it won’t take long before we will have a ripped such a leader into shreds.” One colleague quipped, “If it doesn’t hurt or sting in the back, we won’t move.

CA leader

Position with Honor

So, should a leader be directive or relational? Should he be separated from his personnel, or close to them? Given that Central Asian cultures tend to default to hierarchical top-down leadership, and that they need to maintain honor in order to have influence as leaders, here is the question: “How can a ‘position leader’ become a ‘people leader’ without losing his authority and honor?”

We have an abundance of literature on servant leadership. But if honor is based on position and status, and if leaders naturally give orders, how should we understand servant leadership where lords wash their disciples’ feet and servants have dignity, such as our Master modeled for us?  Does servant leadership mean that we reject shame-based, authoritarian patterns?

Entering the Story

One day I brought some candy for our NGO staff in Central Asia. They, of course, thanked me, to which I added, “It was nothing.” One elderly man responded, “But you thought about us. When someone thinks about us, we feel encouraged and honored.” Persians say, “That person entered my story.” The other person has honored us by paying attention to us.

Caring Leadership

Can an authoritarian leader care for his personnel and yet maintain his own honor?  Instead of talking about “the universal equality of every individual” or about “equal human rights”, it is better to talk about the universal value and dignity of every individual.  This is based on the creative order.

Leaders who understand that everyone person has value will relate to them with care.  If the boss gives attention to his employees, will he then lose some of his own honor? If a pastor moves ‘downward’ in order to relate to his flock and listen to them, will he have lost some of his worth? No, he will indeed have gained honor in the eyes of others.  This remains the constant challenge in shame-honor based cultures. How can one care for their personnel?

Back to the Story

The word story is an interesting idiom to explain how someone cares for another person. “My story” refers to my experiences, the sad and successful, the ups and downs of life. Usually people don’t care about other stories, except to gain more input for their own stories. But when someone does care for us, we suddenly experience value and inner joy.

This is God’s story, that He has entered the “human story” in the Messiah. And then, our Messiah calls us to enter His story (believe, follow) and when we do, we must continue with the same mindset as our Master – to enter the stories of other people.

Paul urges the young believers in Philippi to esteem and honor them: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Phil 2:3-4).

A follower of the Messiah is someone who is interested in other people. Paul describes Timothy in this way: I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (Phil 3:20-21).

Timothy shows interest in Jesus when he is genuinely interested in others. This is the law of our Master. When a leaders asks me, “how are you?” and I know it’s more than a rhetorical greeting, I sense that he really wants to learn from my experiences and enter my story. He begins to care for me as he gives me his ear. He has honored me by caring for my story. And as he does this, I will honor him.

As a leader, how can you honor others? How can you enter their stories?
How can you develop national leaders to seek others’ honor?

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8 Comments on “How Authoritarian Leaders Could Lead

    • Great!! I plan to feature more global workers who are addressing HonorShame topics. Many, like Arley, are doing great things, so I hope we can hear their HonorShame insights.

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post. I have been living in Cambodia for a year and a half and have really been thinking about how to be a servant leader here in a way that the people here can understand, relate to, and respect. This blog has got me thinking. Thanks for what you had to say.

    • Yeah, I agree about ‘entering someone’s story’ being such a powerful metaphor for servant-leadership (so incarnational!). Glad you enjoyed Arley’s reflections.

  2. Very awesome post. I am currently church planting in a former communist European country and found this really relevant and helpful. It seems here that people actually prefer a dictatorial type leader, someone to rule the masses and keep everything under control. While I am still growing and learning, I do feel, in my admitted limited experience as a cross cultural leader, when honor is given to those being led by “entering their story”, I don’t have to seek to maintain my own honor and status as a leader. Rather that honor is given by those following. I hope this continues to prove true in the future, as I don’t feel that seeking to force my leadership position in a dictatorial way is something biblical or Christ like.

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