“Moses’ father-in-law replied, ‘What you are doing is not good.” Exodus 18:17
As I surveyed the blank faces of the people assembled around the room for a church meeting, I wondered how to proceed. It was challenging enough leading a meeting in a language not my own, but it was also evident that the rules of engagement within a Japanese context were very different. Obviously, I would need to employ a different leadership style that did not come natural to me. Moments earlier, in what now seemed like an eternity, I had presented a topic, asked some questions, and then waited for a robust discussion that was apparently not forthcoming.
In retrospect, after many years of experience, I can more readily identify the different dynamics that typically characterize a Japanese meeting. I’ve also come to understand that the bedrock value that seems to drive many of the distinctives of such meetings in Japan is the primary objective of striving to achieve a clear consensus among all the participants. With this in mind, it is helpful to remember that people are often reluctant to express individual opinions that might interfere with the unstated, but overarching goal of unity. Therefore, the leader must be careful not to unnecessarily single out people and put them in an awkward position while encouraging them to voice their opinions. Meetings also tend to be rather lengthy in Japan because it often takes an inordinate amount of time to arrive at a consensus and ensure that everyone is in agreement. To facilitate this process, the leader must be careful not to interject their opinion inappropriately or prematurely, but instead, allow sufficient time for diverse views to emerge among even the most reluctant participants. The leader’s wife or husband must also exercise restraint in the same manner as their opinion is considered inseparable from their spouse’s and could carry a disproportionate amount of weight in the discussion.
Ambiguity, which is a commonly used pattern in Japanese conversation, makes communication even more complicated in a group setting, particularly if the leader is not a native speaker. Of course, copious minutes that capture the details of each meeting must be duly taken and preserved as an integral element to this whole process. Through trial and error, I also learned that the most essential factor towards a successful outcome in any given meeting is probably the concept of nemawashi (根回し), which means literally “going around the roots.” This refers to the process of transplanting a tree where one must carefully dig around the roots to enhance sustained growth once it has been relocated. Sometimes nemawashi is loosely translated as “laying the groundwork.” When the concept is applied to meetings, it means that the leader will discretely talk to influential people on the committee prior to meeting for the express purpose of gathering their support and feedback.
Effective and godly leadership in any cultural situation can be difficult to define and even harder to implement. In the Old Testament, Moses struggled with this objective. Some helpful advice from his father-in-law (Jethro) to compensate for his limitations as a leader is recorded for our benefit in Exodus 18:13-26. But the Scriptures are full of examples of leaders who did not lead well and the one fault they all have in common is their failure to purposefully lean into the wisdom of God. Skillful leadership certainly requires sensitivity to the nuances of the culture in which it is exercised, but a godly leader never forgets that “every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33b) As we are called into leadership roles, we must constantly seek to allow God the freedom to do the work of nemawashi on our heart before we attempt to lead others.