Tag Archives: Paternalism

The Problem of Paternalism

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

Prior to serving cross-culturally in ethnic minority ministry, I never thought much about paternalism. Now after a decade of ethnic minority and cross-cultural experience, I think about it and talk about it almost daily.

As a student of servant leadership and now a professor who teaches servant leadership, it became clear many years ago that many Christians and ministry leaders often articulate and live out their leadership approach in ways that are actually paternalistic in contrast to truly empowering.  I’ve come across many who seem to think that the main choice in leadership styles is the choice between the authoritarian or dictatorial leader on one hand and the “nice” leader on the other hand – the “nice” and serving leader that in reality better fits paternalism than any notion of empowering leadership.

Paternalism tends to look and feel “good” to those seeking to help or influence, yet it often is not “good” in the ways we are tempted to think it is.  That’s why we need to learn what it is.  Paternalism is a dynamic that demands attention. Ethical leadership requires that we identify it and cultivate awareness of it. Courage is required because paternalism remains one of the greatest barriers to empowering others and raising up leaders in a different context.

Paternalism shows up frequently in partnering scenarios with majority culture as well in majority culture decision making. Well-meaning efforts that are executed outside of deep learning and mutuality usually end up reinforcing dependence on one hand or just a reinforcement of the status quo power dynamics.

Paternalism often involves decisions related to significant resources (money, people) that can put leaders in ethnic communities in hard spots given that resources and money often come with inherent or implicit expectations or “strings” attached.   It’s a frequent occurrence that majority leaders with positions and power will make decisions “for” ethnic minority leaders or strategies without really being in ongoing dialogue with those people or listening to a broad sampling of their voices.

Paternalism also shows up especially within different ethnic communities as it can be more embedded in the relational fabric of leaders and staff members or followers.  Paternalism still resides in cultures that still experience the historical influence of patron-client dynamics and the honor – shame systems that drive them.  But paternalism can flow from individual character dynamics – one example being the “sugar daddy leader” who uses their abundant resources or budget to appease or keep people happy with an unspoken expectation for loyalty (essentially a modern version of patron-client relationship).

It takes great clarity of vision and character organizationally to relate in non-paternalistic, but empowering ways. Likewise, the same type of leadership is needed within multi-ethnic and ethnic minority ministry to empower leaders as well as lead collectively towards a new and different future.

If you’ve ever read the book When Helping Hurts, then you have some framework for some of how good intentions can reinforce dependence rather than empower others. See here some of my overall thoughts on that book that pertain to paternalism.  The authors highlight multiple dimensions of paternalism ranging from resource driven paternalism, to spiritual paternalism, to managerial.  All of these are constant threats to empowering leaders from other ethnic communities and to cultivating an empowering multi-ethnic ministry environment.

Another series here that explores the same themes related to leadership ethics and paternalism jumped off from the book that inspired the movie the Green Zone.  There are several posts that explore the American occupation of Iraq through the lens of resource, knowledge, and managerial paternalism and the resultant failures that such perspectives led to.

What is easier is not always what is better.

There are many today who love to read and talk about ministry leadership with a focus on how to get things done, but fewer who spend time thinking about leadership ethics.  Yet, for every multi-ethnic context or cross-cultural ministry situation there are corresponding ethical tensions that must be wrestled over with humility and integrity for the sake of truly serving and empowering results.

Will we be leaders who demand trust and focus only on our own perceived “good” intentions?  Or will we choose the harder path of working for what is truly good for another community?

In multi-ethnic contexts, I’ve learned that there are often only so many chances to build trust and succeed because of the complexity, history, and pain involved. Paternalism can undermine the precious few chances or only chance you may have to establish a partnering dynamic of mutuality, respect, dignity, and love. 

Paternalism and When Helping Hurts

Not too long ago I finished When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.  If you aren’t familiar – it’s an exploration of how various missions or relief efforts done by wealthy or more powerful countries can actually do more long term damage than good – particularly when there is significant material poverty involved.  The book shows the way various assumptions or common attitudes ultimately end up to be more self serving as opposed to truly making a difference for a community that may be in need.

I chose to read this book because it was recommended highly and because I was told it expounds on the dynamic of paternalism in a number of ways.  And instead of doing an overall review here, I wanted to highlight some of the categories of paternalism that they identify and illustrate through many case studies and accounts.  The book or something like it is needed reading for anyone who is involved in short-term missions especially  (primarily if those trips are focused on service in poorer locations domestically or internationally).

In a section the authors highlight as “The Poison of Paternalism” they boil it down to a simple truth – don’t do things for people that they can do for themselves. You likely are doing damage to them, yourself, or both if you do. But here’s ways you can possibly identify the poison of paternalism at work.  These are all clues that we need to take a step back and repent of our assumptions and seek a renewed perspective.

Resource Paternalism

When wealthy entities or organizations with large resources view the solutions as requiring merely the addition of new financial or material resources while the real solutions require helping a community steward their own resources.

Spiritual Paternalism

When missionaries aim to go “do” missions “to” people, assuming that they are the experts and failing to recognize that people in poverty often have great spiritual depth.  There’s much to listen to and learn from.

Knowledge Paternalism

When we think we have all the best ideas about how to do things.  We assume we know best.  It never occurs to us to ask people who are likely the best experts of their own communities what we can learn from them. Brief note – this is rampant everywhere in the missions and business world.

Labor Paternalism

Doing work that people could and should do for themselves. Doing work for people that they should be doing themselves robs them of ownership, participation, dignity, and other important things important to development and healthy community.

Managerial Paternalism

Basically when entities or organizations of power enter into a different context or community with less power and take over.  Integrated with some of the above elements, it’s when people of power just take over, control, and end up being in charge of various works or decisions or projects that affect another community as if they are the experts.

The book is primarily targeted towards international relief missions.  However, there’s substantial content also about affluent majority culture churches partnering with urban poorer churches.  So there’s helpful challenges about how to think about a variety of ministry partnering.

When I look at the above five types of paternalism, I’ve seen all of them in church contexts. I’ve seen all of them in my own organization. I’ve seen them in a variety of ministries.  And you know what – I’ve exhibited every one of the five at one point or another!  So this is an important book about how to partner with people and serve without hijacking dignity and doing damage long-term for the sake of short-term good feelings.

My last thought is that in the last chapter they highlight what maybe the most important ingredient to “healthy helping” that contributes to dignity. That ingredient is “repentance.” Paternalism continues in different forms because of blind spots as well as a failure to learn and especially to repent of the ways that our best of intentions are hurting others or doing damage.  We have to repent when we learn we are doing damage to people, otherwise a new future is not possible.  I thought that was an important point of the book because I don’t see many leaders who are faced with the feedback of paternalism respond with repentance. I think many choose to shoot the messenger instead.  But paternalism is something we have to aggressively look for as we seek to empower others because it probably is the number one reason why efforts may fail over the long haul.



Green Zone Leadership: Breaking Rules to Serve

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

This is a much delayed post in the series I’ve entitled “Green Zone Leadership,” which is a compilation of reflections and insights from reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City – the account of the U.S. led rebuilding effort after the second gulf war.  I routinely reflect on this book as the account mirrors a lot of what happens when powerful organizational entities seek to help and empower others. I aimed to write this post last summer, but alas – life happens.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Bureaucracy

This was the easiest phenomenon to observe in this massive case study of leadership and an effort to empower.  For bureaucracy is all over the book. Bureaucracy isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary thing to some degree.  Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday and Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball both illustrate that organizations all require some measure of centralization that keeps them from losing all form and sense of corporate purpose.

But what was quite evident in the book and what most of has have experienced in one place or another is the soul sucking culture shaped by structures whose original purposes of serving have been overwhelmed by the instincts of self-preservation and the elevation of order as the highest virtue.

Servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf wrote the following:

“Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, and formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness – a pretty bad state of affairs.  It is the feet of clay that seem to encumber everything that is organized.  As I see it, this is the way all institutions tend to become as they grow old, large, or respectable……..They may do some good in the world; in fact, they are all we have.  But they still tend to become bureaucracies–given size, age, and respectability.  Because we need the good they do, we tend to overlook the harm done because they are bureaucracies.” (294)

The “Green Zone” was almost synonymous with bureaucracy. The book outlines time after time in which efforts to serve were delayed, corrupted, or silenced under the power of the bureaucracy. But there is a fantastic section of the book called “Breaking the Rules” that captured how one leadership defied the bureaucracy and truly served the Iraqis and left them empowered to lead their own in that respective domain.

But he had to completely break the rules and step out of the bureaucracy to do it.  One man, Alex Deghan went to extraordinary lengths to do the job he was asked to do, yet if he went “by the book” even remotely it would have never happened – more money would have been wasted, the end product would be lower quality, and leaders would not have been set up to succeed in leading their own people.

One example – he wanted to train Iraqis to guard the science center he was developing and needed them equipped to look for car bombs and other things.  No one would help him out.  He tried to get some U.S. security guards to help. Finally he found a guy that said he would do it if he could get a full length mirror so he could enhance his sex life while in Iraq. Deghan immediately went to the market and made it happen. Now obviously – that’s a racy example, but it illustrates the kind of foolishness that can get in the way of good being done and sometimes what is required to remove unnecessary barriers to serving.

Deghan had to resort to desperate measures just to access the money allocated to his project and assignment. The Green Zone bureaucracy created insane delays and stonewalled legitimate requests because of black and white rigidity. Deghan came up with a solution that took incredible initiative and effort, but was so outside the box that an accountant told him he was actually probably breaking Federal Law. Yet later, when the rebuilding effort ran into problems financially of how to distribute money they came back to Deghan and began implementing his strategy of getting funds from the U.S. to the actual projects they were earmarked for.

But Deghan, in his relentless effort to serve – do a quality job that empowered the Iraqis and stewarded the resources, drew incredible backlash from other Americans in the Green Zone. He was threatened, stonewalled, and given the run around because he was viewed to have no respect for the system.  The author captured his reality and the fruit of his leadership well writing,

“He was the only guy in the Emerald City who feared his fellow Americans more than he did Iraqi insurgents.

Because he didn’t do business the Green Zone way, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he also created an institution that was immediately successful.” (255)

Every organization has great people whose duty is to keep things working smoothly and staying within a reasonable measure of order.  Most systems are initially designed to serve. Yet bureaucracy sneaks up on the best of us sometimes. Sometimes change just takes a long time. Sometimes organizations are “blessed” with people who have managed to make themselves indispensable because they have held onto all the knowledge in their domain so that they feel secure and safe. Some cultures just value order and control more than others.  Whatever the reason, bureaucracy happens.  And when it does, it doesn’t serve.

The reality is, whether it’s Malone’s “core” or Mackenzie’s “hairball” or Greenleaf’s “bureaucracy”, to truly serve people that lie outside of those initial domains, a measure of freedom and flexibility is required.  Using Mackenzie’s language, we have to “orbit” to serve.  We cannot truly serve if we are solely functioning either within or for the hairball.  We have to have some separation, some freedom of identity to think and create and adapt, if we are truly going to serve specific people in specific contexts.

What this means is that if you aren’t sometimes willing to break the rules, get outside the system sometimes, or think more flexibility than the organizational structures (or those structures’ guardians) encourage or allow, then YOU ARE NOT TRULY SERVING.  You can’t serve both masters. You either are going to serve people or you are going to serve structures. We usually start with people and always drift towards structures. These structures show up in policies, curriculums, schedules, and processes that are embedded in our organizations (HR not the least of which, which is the arena in which I often work!)

I believe we are all vulnerable to bureaucracy, some more than others. But that’s what makes great leadership to me. Great servant leaders are those that reverse the direction of energy and leadership activity away from structures and back towards people.  At the heart, bureaucrats become what they are because they forget what truly serving even means. They begin to confuse order and lack of chaos for just and serving environments. Order gives the illusion that everything is ok, when the reality is that order often becomes an instrument of repression, conformity, and punitive judgment rather than a tool to be submitted for the sake of human functioning and expression, creativity, and freedom.

Structures are part of what it means to serve people, as long as they remain submitted to that purpose. But we all face decisions about whether we are going to serve people or serve order.  When faced with that moral and ethical tension – I hope you and I consistently choose to serve people.   Authentic servanthood tends to create its own “order” that usually does a better job than structurally imposed order anyway. And if we don’t know if we’re serving, I hope we all have the humility to find out!

Alex Deghan is a hero of mine and an example to be followed. He was not rebelling or “sticking it to the man.” He was navigating a giant hairball with the complete goal to serve the Iraqis and empower them for the future.  He chose to serve people, not the bureaucracy and he went to great lengths to do it.

The author made a note about Deghan and one other similar character in the Baghdad narrative. He wrote,  “Their resumes didn’t suggest them for their jobs, but they had plenty of chutzpah and, more importantly, they weren’t political hacks.” (253) These two men who had uncommon effectiveness in both explicit objectives as well as subjective measures of authentic empowerment had these two things in common – they were creatively courageous and they were able to think and function outside of the bureaucracy for the sake of the people they were there for in the first place.

I’m not advocating “sticking it to the man” or going rogue. That’s not what this discussion is about. I’m only talking about being independent of thought enough to be able to identify what serves and courageous enough to lead towards that without settling for the convenient excuses or losing heart at the silly, but formidable obstacles often faced. Maybe there are times that are extreme enough to merit some measure of rogueness like Deghan. But like Deghan’s example of funding, some measures of rogueness that result in transformational serving are frequently copied by “the man” who simply had never been able to think outside of the box and take the required risks. So sometimes being labeled “rogue” is just a matter of being the first one to try to solve a problem by those that have refused to see and solve that problem prior.

Deghan is worth listening to as he speaks to the paternalistic and controlling tendencies of bureaucracy along with a perspective that might help free us to serve….

“One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Deghan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.”  (255)

If you get a chance to read this book, it’s well worth it. It’s a tragedy really that sometimes masquerades as a comedy of errors. Even if you don’t, remember that the only way to serve the Emerald City is to stay free enough from the Green Zone.

Thoughts on Imperial Life in the Emerald City

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

Are you leading from the Green Zone?

I wrote a blog post a couple years ago by that title here after seeing the movie The Green Zone.

The movie The Green Zone was partially inspired by the reporting and the account of Iraq post-war (2nd war) found in the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv ChandrasekaranShortly.  After seeing the movie I started this book, but put it down for a bit and finally came back to it and finished it. To be clear, the movie is not a movie version of the book.

Chandrasekaran references a quote from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as one of the central insights or wisdom of what he’s trying to convey.  That quote from August 20th, 1917 is,

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

After reading it, I’ve found that so much of it resonates with my observations of American majority culture approaches to leading change among ethnic minority communities.  In fact, if I could I would make this book mandatory reading for all white ministers whose decision making or involvement even remotely impacts ethnic minority communities.  I hope to post on some of the key points of connection in the near future.

But the essence of the message of this book, the takeaways of what we can learn from the Coalition Provincial Authority in Iraq in the early 2000’s, can be summarized I believe by the following equation:

Ethnocentrism + Paternalism + Power (+ Nationalism in this case) = Really bad leadership with a lot of self-deception (including wasteful spending, poor stewardship, unethical use of power, lack of empowerment, and many more things).

For those not use to those words I’ll briefly describe ethnocentrism as seeing the world only through your own cultural lens and being unable to see from other cultural viewpoints.  Paternalism is the dynamic where those in power lead in ways in which they think they know what’s best for another people, but in carrying that out they create and sustain and power disparity and a measure of dependence and control.  Power here is having the resources or the clout to execute one’s will even in the face of resistance. Nationalism is basically thinking that your country is the best (or your company, denomination…).  A version of this also can include a divine blessing perspective in which God has clear blessed you and therefore you have a measure of authority to exert your will your way in other places.

In my organization and many others I’m aware of there isn’t much overt “Nationalism” per se, but there sure is plenty of the other three and these things are a consistent part of the landscape of a majority culture entity trying to empower people from whom their exists a great distance or gap of understanding or connection.

The Green Zone is one of ultimate examples of ethnocentric paternalistic leadership and I think there’s much to be learned in the ways of what it means to serve people and what it looks like when we don’t and why.

The Green Zone has become part of my permanent leadership vocabulary now.  If you want to read a few more thoughts of mine inspired by the movie, go here, but I highly recommend the book as a massive case study of where leadership can go wrong in trying to “serve.”

This may evolve into a series as there are so many great examples of where power driven leadership goes wrong in trying to serve.