Developing Internationals as Leaders

How would you define a leader? Think of three important characteristics and compare your answers with the responses from internationals we polled. You might see some differences.

There is a plethora of definitions of leadership but most of them express these central thoughts: “Leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire people along the way.”

Let’s compare this definition with these composite responses from dozens of international students we interviewed last year:

  • A leader is caring, passionate, compassionate and servant-hearted.
  • A leader leads by integrity and personal example; he or she knows the others in the group and has their trust and acceptance.
  • A leader sees the needs of the people and meets them. A leader is someone who serves others and inspires them to do the same.
  • A leader sees the best in others and calls out their strengths with opportunities for everyone in the group to have a place to serve.

Most of us will whole-heartedly agree with each of these responses, yet we may sense that they are different from the classic definition above: a different feel, a matter of emphasis.

Why? In the mind of most internationals, leadership includes achieving goals (and promoting the vision of a group) but leadership is a relational interaction rather than an achievement-focused transaction. A leader works towards the flourishing of the individuals in the community and the community as a whole. This can be represented as a family image vs. a business model, or a dance vs. a flowchart.

Understanding these differences will help us to invite and support more diverse people into the leadership structures of our chapters. We can enrich our leadership teams and the way we lead.

What motivates internationals to become leaders?

In this highly relational view of leadership, being a leader flows from being a part of a community and meeting the needs of the group by supporting its vision.

“I came to the group as a stranger and left with a family.” This statement by Ahmed*, from a Middle Eastern country, was echoed by most of the students we interviewed. They referred to their campus group as a fellowship, community or family, rather than as a chapter or group.

When asked what motivated them to be leaders, many expressed that as a part of the community, they wanted to ‘give back’ and serve. They were motivated by the fact that they were able to meet some spiritual or practical need of the community and/or the needs of individuals in the community. Several mentioned that they served alongside others rather than as a ‘lone’ leader and didn’t hold an official leadership title; they were motivated by serving the community in a communal way.

Creating a leadership pathway

Dajo, a believer from Indonesia, was met at the airport and hosted by a local family upon his arrival in the U.S. Within 48 hours, he was helping with the annual furniture give-away for new international students. The following week, he attended the weekly dinner and Bible discussion. Over ice cream that night, Dajo met Richard from Ghana, one of the student leaders and bongo players in the fellowship. They chatted about their shared love for music. Dajo played the guitar so Richard encouraged him to play along the next week for worship. Dajo objected that he didn’t have a guitar, know the songs and wasn’t sure he could do a good job.

Dajo’s objections were no deal breaker. A guitar was found for Dajo and he was invited to simply ‘give it a try for a week or two.’ He was reassured that all new internationals students had to learn the unfamiliar tunes. So Dajo played for a week, then two, and ever since and has contributed positively to the worship times.

A year later, Dajo reflects on his experience. “I had never led anything back home. I wasn’t a leader when I came to Cleveland. But now, thanks to the encouragement of Bok (the staff worker) and many in the fellowship, I am a leader. I still don’t know how it happened. I became a part of this family and wanted to be involved and do my part. They needed me; they asked me and helped me do it.”

Growing a richer community

Is there a ‘Dajo’ in your chapter or campus community? Maybe he has already been invited to start his leadership journey and do his part in your community. Or maybe your new international friend still needs to be drawn into your community and encouraged to take a small risk to meet a need for a week or two with the help of others.

I pray that the next time we interview international student leaders, there will be one from your chapter who has a story about being invited to be a leader under the encouragement of your support.

Yes, it takes a little extra effort to uncover the hidden talents of our emerging international leaders and to gently prompt and support them along the way. But the result will be a richer experience of the community with the diverse people and the diverse gifts of the universal body of Christ embodied in and through us on campus.

Engage the international students on your campus to follow Jesus and influence others in their relational communities with valuable resources from International Student Ministries, including Starting Something New with Internationals and Discipling International Leaders.

About the Author
ISM Associate Director for Leadership Development and Formation

Heidi serves with InterVarsity's International Student Ministry. She holds degrees in theology, journalism, education and cross-cultural psychology. Heidi and her family come from three continents and live in Cleveland, Ohio. She enjoys scouring thrift stores for fabulous fashion finds and eclectic objects to infuse color into long, dreary Ohio winters.