Feature Article: Unintended Leadership

Drew Bishop

Drew Bishop, MSODIn leadership forums, like the Integral Leadership Review, discussions about how leadership develops are a core topic. There are the ongoing debates about born leaders vs. trained leaders, environment vs. hereditary. Each side supports their opinion with valid observations, good research and persuasive discussions. And the reality of the matter is there are leaders who fit all along the continuum of this subject. But there is a segment of leaders that rarely merits discussion, let alone mention. It is what I call the unintended leader.

Unintended leaders can be individuals or organizations. They achieve their position, not by plan or intention, but simply by competently challenging the status quo. They are the opposite of the famed “Peter Principle”. They never sought to be a leader, never intentionally set out to change the status quo. What they did do was see something that needed being done, and, against culture, training or society norms, did it. In accomplishing that task, they reveal to their neighbors, to the guardians of the status quo, that change could be positive.

History has these individuals or organizations stuck in the cracks of its framework. Rosa Parks tired of the injustice of segregation and decided she wasn’t going give in to it anymore. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu believed that people should die with dignity. Martin Luther felt that the religious leaders of his time had succumbed to the lure of power and made his feelings known on the Württemberg cathedral door. Their convictions were strong enough to lead them to act against established leadership, cultural convention and societal norms—the status quo.

To the surprise of the guardians of the status quo, each of these individuals’ actions proved to be a tipping point, an ignition of a movement that was awaiting a catalyst. If you had a chance to look at Ms. Parks’ day planner, I’m pretty sure igniting the Civil Rights movement was not penciled in for that afternoon. Likewise, Luther did not have a Post-It on his mirror reminding him to begin the Reformation the following day. And Agnes? The world came to know her as Mother Teresa. Her name has become synonymous with self sacrifice in the pursuit of human dignity. Each of them had reached a point where the status quo was no longer acceptable.

This leads me to ask the question—how many more leaders are out there, waiting to step forward, tired of the status quo, but not quite at the tipping point? What is necessary to help sustain the status quo change they initiate? Where are they located? And, can the practice of leadership development focus a portion of its activities on facilitating their transformation without getting in their way?

Having spent the last 16 years working in places that span the range from remote African villages to the financial capitals of Asia, I firmly believe the answers to these questions are not only “Yes,” but a bigger “Yes” than most of us realize. This article will chronicle one such experience and identify points along the way where people became leaders without realizing it or intending to assume that role.


I had the privilege of working with a national church body in Guinea, West Africa from 1992-1999. My role was to facilitate the partnership between the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Eglise Protestante Evangelique (EPE), working to meet the needs of refugees in Guinea who had fled the horrors in their own countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Racism runs deep in Africa. I’m not talking about white vs. black, colonists vs. natives. Racism has existed in Africa since before there was written history. The communal concept, the identity of “I belong, therefore I am”, breeds deep divisions among the myriad of tribes, clans and races that make up Africa. Onto this foundation, religion and politics have been layered over the centuries. This dynamic in Guinea ranked the tribes of the Southern Forest region lowest on the social scale. And, the EPE was strongest among the Forest People.

To finish out the background context, Guinea consistently ranks in the bottom three of countries in the Human Development Index. Even the upper levels of society struggle to make ends meet. So, the leaders we will examine come from the poorest level of one of the poorest countries in the world.

MapThe Liberian Civil War began the end of 1989. Refugees fled across the border into the Southern city of Nzerekore. In search of food and assistance, many refugees came to the EPE churches asking their leaders for assistance. Given that the Guinean leaders were already living in extreme poverty, it would be understandable for them to use that as an excuse for saying they couldn’t help. Instead, they asked the refugees to return the following Monday afternoon. The next Sunday, the leaders put the request for help to their congregations. The congregations responded with a second offering, a donation specifically to purchase food for the refugees. Monday morning, the leaders designated representatives to go to the market and purchase as much rice and sauce ingredients as they could. Monday afternoon, when the refugees returned, they passed out meal portions (food baskets is the official United Nations term) until their supplies ran out. This became a regular routine for EPE churches.

“So”, you may ask, “How did the status quo change?”

The refugees were neither Guinean, nor were they, for the most part, Guerzés (the predominately local tribe). Many were not of the same faith as the EPE members. The Guineans were just emerging from the economic nightmare of a pro-Soviet dictator who had bankrupted the country, while the Liberians had enjoyed a (relatively) better economic lifestyle. Within the cultural context, there was little to suggest that the EPE members would respond in a manner that stretched their own meager resources. And, they didn’t just do it once, but they repeatedly continued to respond. What they saw were people who needed help and acted.

Within a few months, this action was noticed by donors from Sweden and Canada. Negotiations between them and the EPE resulted in a relief program with the donors providing food and administrative financing while the EPE provided the manpower. Because the size of the donations was beyond the experience of the EPE, they asked their expatriate counterpart, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, if an expatriate administrator could be provided. One was assigned through their relief arm, CAMA Services. The EPE’s relief program expanded from local churches around Nzerekore to extend across the whole southern region of Guinea.

The EPE continued to provide care based primarily on need and did not use race or religion as a determining factor. They gained a reputation among the refugees and the growing relief NGO community as being fair and honest. A year later, this integrity led the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to request the EPE to be its partner in providing assistance to vulnerable refugees. As before, one condition for this contract was that an expatriate administrator be brought in. I was hired to fill this role. In May of 1992, my family and I moved to the Gueckedou, 150 miles west of Nzerekore on the border where Guinea met Sierra Leone and Liberia.


My role was to direct the partnership between the EPE and UNCHR. A partnership means that the participants enter the relationship as equals, each with their unique parts to add to the whole. UNHCR brought funds and a level of respect the EPE had never had in its own country (to this point). The EPE brought manpower, a local knowledge of the situation and a level of integrity that UNHCR needed in order to satisfy their donors. I brought on site leadership training and the experience to bridge the multicultural worldview gap as it related to project management that needed to be spanned for the partnership to succeed.

To understand the task, the concept of a multicultural worldview gap as it applies to management styles needs to be understood. The first cultural worldview was that of the UN. This is probably easiest to understand. It is rooted in the Western style of management—budgets, action plans, performance reviews, financial audits as well as system audits, protocols, etc. On the other side was the EPE’s management worldview. Budgeting was non-existent. Plans might be made, but if they didn’t unfold according to the schedule, that was OK. Decisions were made only after extended discussions. Hiring was done by looking at family first. Money, always tight, was spent as it came in for the most pressing needs.

Let me throw in a parenthesis question. When you read that last paragraph, what were your reactions to the UN culture, to the EPE culture? Did you resonate more with one over the other? Did you feel judgment was being leveled on either side? Did you level judgment? These are important questions because the challenge of working with leaders across cultures is rooted in identifying the source of your leadership styles and comparing them to the leaders with whom you’ll work. For example, if you see punctuality as a positive leadership trait, you could struggle with respecting leaders from cultures where it is not a high priority. In order to be successful in cross-cultural endeavors, it is important to remember the line from the movie, The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy looks around once the tornado has deposited her in a strange land: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This means that what works in leadership and management in a Western/Northern setting may not work in an Eastern/Southern setting. One needs to be willing to critically examine the elements of one’s leadership style. Why is that a part of your style? Is that important to helping those you’re working with succeed? If not, can you put it on the shelf until you’re done? If it is important (again, a critical examination, not just a quick checking things off), how can you introduce that element when it is counter-cultural to the people whom you are looking to train?

My first task after settling my family was to identify where the EPE was succeeding and where there were performance gaps. Then, I needed to understand the reasons for the performance gaps, as well as what was contributing to the EPE’s successes. To accomplish that, I needed to begin building relationships. Relationships are critical to successful leadership development. What varies from culture to culture is the intensity, the quality, the depth of the relationship needed to be accepted as a leader developer. Additionally, when working in an unfamiliar culture, there is a steep learning curve in how to give praise and criticism, how direct you can be, how to determine the real power structures, what humor is and what is valued. And the other challenge for me was to shake the rust off my French and get it back to an operational level.

After introducing myself to the EPE’s leadership and assuming directorship of the project, I paid a visit to the head of UNHCR’s sub-office for our region to hear his perspectives on the partnership. During my seven years in Guinea, I was to work with four heads of sub-office. They ranged from corrupt to outstanding. The first individual, I was to learn, was the most corrupt. However, his opinion on the partnership was still critical. His observations of the UNCHR–EPE relationship were frank and objective. As expected, the management issues on which I would need to focus stemmed from differing cultural approaches to leadership and management. With the head of sub-office’s critique in hand, I was ready to begin the heart of my role.

When approaching an issue that is rooted in differing cultural worldviews, it is key to identify how that culture defines existence. There are two ends of this spectrum. At one end, there is the statement, “I think, therefore I am”. It is the root of internal locus of control. At the other end of the spectrum is, “I belong, therefore I am”. This is the root of external locus of control. Every culture lies somewhere along this continuum, and individuals within a culture (for the most part) lie somewhere along the continuum section defined by their culture. Those who extend beyond their culture’s boundaries are the ones who effect the lasting changes that impact their culture.

The culture of the EPE was West African tribal. EPE had created an NGO called SECADOS (in English, Help and Assistance Social Works). On paper, it was autonomous of the church, independent of its control. In reality, few decisions were made without the church leadership’s OK. This was accepted by the SECADOS manager, because it was how things were always done. And, as long as the resources provided were used according to contract, UNHCR’s own mandate of non-interference in internal partner affairs meant it would not say anything, either. What this meant for me was if I went to the local SECADOS manager and presented UNHCR’s critical input, little would be accomplished.

In working to effect change, it is important to identify the critical non-negotiables in a person’s or in a community’s cultural psyche. What was it, that when it was at stake, would motivate behavior change. It should not be used to manipulate a behavior change, but it is important that individuals responsible understand how their behavioral consequences will impact the non-negotiables in their lives. Your role is simply to make sure they understand the potential consequences, especially when the consequences are culture specific. It is still their decision, but you have provided them with additional variables to better inform their decision process. For the EPE, this paramount non-negotiable was their reputation, to be viewed as competent, to be respected.

Another important cultural characteristic of tribal cultures is that criticism and corrections are not addressed directly unless permission is given by the elders. Success is more often gained by going to the chief in private, outlining the situation and presenting him with the potential consequences, as you see it. Then, back off and let the chief think it through, allowing him to make the final decisions about what to do. At all points along the decision continuum, it is critical to defer credit to the chief, even if you are the outside expert. He will decide who receives what credit.

Using this approach, I sat with the senior pastor of the district and shared with him the results of my meeting with the head of sub-office. Then, I asked him what questions he had about the feedback. His one question was to ask my opinion about what it meant for the church. I felt that if SECADOS did not respond with operating changes that addressed UNHCR’s concerns, their contract might not be renewed the following year. If the operational changes were made, it would reflect well on SECADOS (and by extension, the church, the non-negotiable mentioned earlier). I offered to explain UNHCR’s viewpoint concerning the changes if there was significant resistance. Several days after that meeting, the senior pastor stopped by my office and asked if I would call a meeting of the SECADOS managers and church oversight committee.


The dynamics of this next meeting are important to note and would presage the dynamics of my working relationship with the EPE for several years. Officially, on paper I was the director for SECADOS, conferred with all the Western/Northern authority of that position. The reality was that I was new, white and still very much an unknown actor in the eyes of the EPE. I could do a lot of good or I could do a lot of harm. If I approached the role from my own cultural perspective, a lot of energy would have been expended with very little tangible results. To gain their trust, I needed to accept that I was only the titular head until the EPE allowed me to influence their reputation.

I asked the senior pastor to open the meeting and if, as part of the oversight committee, he had anything he wanted to say. He informed those present I had shared with him the results of my first meeting with UNHCR and he wanted me to share that now. I shared the contents of the meeting by highlighting the head of sub-office’s concerns. I finished my presentation by opening the meeting to discussing the report. After a few comments from the others, the senior pastor suggested we look at each concern and understand why it was a concern. Point by point, we went through the list. I was asked why I felt it was a concern of UNHCR’s. Taking a neutral position, I would explain their position. I would also ask their position, i.e., what motivate their actions. I used the process force field analysis, looking to see what forces would need to be addressed in order to change the behaviors that concerned UNHCR. As we talked into the evening (African meetings can go on for hours), I observed that the forces behind the behaviors fell into two major categories. The first was that of efficiency, simplicity or lack of training. The other force was that of constituent expectations. While the first set of changes met little resistance when we discussed new behavior possibilities, those that involved constituent expectations were strongly resisted by the church oversight committee.

Constituent expectations are powerful forces that significantly impact a leader’s decisions. They can keep a politician in office or have her replaced. They can prevent a leader from making a tough, unwelcome but excellent decision. They are an element of the forces that maintain the status quo discussed at the beginning of this article. For these leaders, their constituents were the church members of the EPE. The constituents expected their leaders to deliver to them certain tangibles linked to UNHCR contract. In Western/Northern cultural approaches, these tangibles were ethically questionable. In an Eastern/Southern context, not providing them was unethical. These church leaders were caught squarely in the middle of a cultural conflict. As it slowly dawned on me what was happening, I realized that we needed a time out. At the next opportune moment, I praised how far we had come and recognized that we still had a ways to go. I played a card from my culture saying I needed to head home for dinner. I suggested we reconvene in a couple of days to discuss those points still on the table. The suggestion was accepted. On the way, I asked the senior pastor for another meeting the following day, to which he agreed.

At that meeting, I asked him about my observations on constituent expectations holding up some of the issues. He was hesitant to answer until he was sure I was asking objectively, seeking to understand, not judge. I asked him to help me understand the cultural background, the dynamics of which I didn’t yet understand. Once I had learned, I asked him how he felt about concession—during the next meeting, each point we still needed to work out, I would provide a solution in my role as SECADOS director. He would agree based on the official status of my director title, thereby laying responsibility for the decision on me. If the constituents asked their leaders why a change had been made that did not meet their expectations, the church leaders could point out that they had argued in favor of their constituents, but because of contracts and agreements they had to make the changes. I would accept the role of target of disappointment, allowing the leaders to maintain the support of their constituents. The senior pastor agreed.

At the following meeting, I opened by picking up the points that were still outstanding. I asked if there was any new input. After listening to each person, I put forth the new behavior that was to be expected of SECADOS, behaviors that would not be very welcome by the constituents but that would maintain the EPE’s reputation. I would look at the senior pastor and ask his final thoughts each time. The nature of each response was that he was supporting what I offered based on my role as a SECADOS director. This signaled to the other leaders to accept the changes but also let them know they could lay responsibility on me if they received any negative input from their constituents. Keep in mind, none of this was verbalized; it was just the cultural way of getting past this impasse.

Why didn’t I just do that in the first meeting? Well, if I had done that in the first meeting, without the second private time with the senior pastor, I could have triggered a power struggle. The senior pastor and I had not worked together long enough for him to trust that I was not undermining his authority, especially with the SECADOS staff. By taking the time to talk with him privately, he began to know that I recognized the cultural power dynamics and that I was willing to work within them. His position and his authority were maintained, while, at the same time, unpleasant changes were made that would improve the EPE’s partnership with UNHCR. By working within their cultural leadership dynamics, I was able to facilitate them through making changes that challenged a part of their cultural status quo.

This process was to be repeated many times over the next several years. While it may seem slow, it is the process I have found that works when cross-culturally developing unintentional leaders. There are a couple of critical points to understand. First, my approach was not to change the individuals’ leadership styles, but to expand their leadership toolbox so they could lead situationally. Facilitating an understanding that what works in the village does not always work at an international level is critical to a situational approach. And, vice versa, what works at an international level would not do very well in the village. The challenge for these African leaders in using the new leadership skills was how to successfully transition through the leadership toolbox. Their leadership horizon had expanded from the confines of a town on the edge of the Forest to the international relief and development arena. It produced a skills continuum, with different styles needed at different times with different actors. Often, these different approaches would be used during the course of a single day. Just the act of thinking in different cultures is a skill that needs to be learned.


This discussion began with the question about being able to transform unintentional leaders into intentional leaders without getting in their way. The EPE did not begin buying rice and sauce with the intention of changing their status quo. They simply saw people who needed help, and, even though they could barely meet their own needs, risked their finances to feed strangers. To this point in the history, the EPE has seen their leadership grow from a simple Monday afternoon food handout, impacting a small number of the 650,000 plus refugees, to a bilateral feeding program sponsored by donors in Canada and Sweden impacting several thousand refugees, to a partnership with the UNCHR with the provision of counseling services to a significant population of the refugees—the children separated from their parents, elderly separated from their care giving children and wives separated from their husbands.

They had grown from dealing with matters in the local way to beginning to learn to deal with international funding organizations. Within Guinea they had gone from being an organization that was actively ignored to being one local government officials would invite for their advice and opinion. As others began to recognize the EPE’s leadership in ethical relief work (not a part of the status quo), the EPE’s leaders began to develop confidence in their own abilities to not only respond to requests for relief assistance, but also to explore ways to broaden their impact. They developed their own vision of a SECADOS that not only provided relief assistance to refugees, but, in time, would be a development agency that addressed the poverty of their own people.

They approached my colleague and me, asking for assistance in preparing them for that role. This brought a new dynamic to our roles. We began to schedule seminars about development. These included types of development projects, grant writing, project management, donor relations and expectations, and community needs assessment. Long term refugee care situations will include development style projects to help promote self-care among the refugees. These were great opportunities for the SECADOS personnel to exercise their new found skills. As a result, SECADOS pioneered a new approach to saving the old growth forests that were being used for firewood, they introduced drip irrigation to the refugees (and later, Guineans), identified the source of contention between the refugees and the Guinean health system (no one had ever heard of Post Traumatic Stress in that part of the world) and were asked to assume a major role as a key food distributor for UNHCR and the World Food Program. They were selected to be one of the key partners facilitating the repatriation of refugees back to their homes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, once hostilities there came under control and it was deemed safe by the international community.

From the participants in the seminars and new projects my colleague and I submitted to the EPE’s national leadership a list of individuals we felt would best be able to succeed as future leaders for SECADOS. The leaders appointed from that list and the final phase of my role began. The individuals I was assigned were given various aspects of my role. We began by having them shadow me, observing, and then debriefing for understanding afterwards. Next, I began delegating reports and activities, proofing them before they were submitted. We added the financial accounting, payroll, budgeting and purchasing after that. At each point along the way, I took time to talk with UNHCR, refugee leaders and other NGO’s with which SECADOS was interacting about how the trainees were doing. I would review that feedback with the appropriate individuals, using it to offer positive reinforcement where they were succeeding and designing additional practice, training or counseling where needed. At the end of my seventh year in Guinea, all control was handed over to SECADOS. I remained in Guinea another six months in a consulting role, but, by the end of that, except for a regular friendly coffee, there was no more need for me.

Over an eight-year span, the EPE had gone from a simple offering from struggling farmers and merchants to overseeing an annual budget of US$3 million. They grew from 3 individuals to a regional staff of nearly 30. They opened 13 counseling offices, planted several thousand firewood trees, provided means for refugees to grow better vegetables by their huts and become instrumental in facilitating the return of thousands of people to their homes in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Their vision had grown from local to national and their presence was requested by the Forest governors. Just before beginning this article, I learned that during the recent coup attempt in Guinea, EPE leaders were instrumental in mediating a ceasefire that restored peace to the country.


The story of the EPE is more common than many people are aware of regarding what transpires in villages and hamlets around the world. Most do not rise above their village level because they don’t have someone who can come along side and provide that boost up. It doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders in these places. We would see a great deal more of these leaders if these individuals had a safety net, a way to recover if they didn’t quite reach the top.

When viewed through the lenses of Spiral Dynamicsâ, my role was to facilitate the EPE leaders to expand their vmemes, to add to their color palate. For me, it is not so much a change in their color pattern, but adding to it. The culture background color is OB (purple). The EPE, as a church, had begun to change the B to D (blue). With the arrival of the refugees, D (blue) beliefs influenced the exercise of new S (green) behaviors. The successful practice of these behaviors brought them into a new level of mindsets and opportunities. These mindsets included both DE (blue-orange) actors (the Swedish and Canadian donors) as well as EF (orange-green) actors (UNHCR). In order to successfully interact with these actors AND retain the ability to live within their own societies, the EPE leaders had to develop the skills to lead with behaviors that reflected the culture norms and operating procedures.

In his book, The Greening of Africa, Paul Harrison addresses the accusation by the West/North that farmers in poverty are lazy and unwilling to make the changes needed to improve their crops and their lives. Harrison correctly refutes this notion. It isn’t that the farmers are lazy; it’s that they have no margin for error. If a Western/Northern farmer tries something new, and it doesn’t work, there are numerous government safety nets. There are many tales of farmers being paid NOT to grow something. Farmers of the East/South don’t have this luxury. If they try something new and it fails, they risk the lives of their families. When they have been offered a safety net, a promise they will be subsidized if the new idea fails, they have tried new techniques aggressively.

The same is true of leadership development. There are great ideas floating around and more potential leaders than possible to count. The inhibiting factor is a lack of a safety net if people stick their neck out and try something new. If they do not succeed, they risk ridicule and ostracization. For someone from a collective culture, this is equal to being cut off from their bank account, their doctor, their social security and their life. But, in coming along side these emerging leaders, it needs to be recognized that we are equals, not betters. We need to critically examine why we lead the way we do and be willing to fit into leadership paradigms that are alien to our own culture. We need to be willing to let go of personal gain, of personal recognition in order for the leaders with whom we work can gain confidence in their own abilities. And, we need to be patient. When we leave, if the communities are finding their own solutions to their poverty needs, we need to be happy if they forget we were there, but instead say, “See what we can do”.

About the Author

Drew Bishop is an international consultant focusing on leadership development, organizational development and community development in both for-profit and non-profit. He also has extensive disaster relief experience including developing a relief and a recovery plan to address the devastation caused by the tsunami that leveled Aceh, Indonesia. He has over 30 years of cross-cultural experience, having been raised in Africa, Asia and Europe. He has spent 15 plus years developing leaders in Africa, South East Asia and South Asia in both for-profit and not-for-profit settings. He holds a B.S. in International Health Planning and an M. S. Organizational Development. He can be reached via e-mail and by phone at +1 509 859 4725. Further details can be found at The Development Executive Group – Individual Profile.