Leadership Styles in Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Seminaries

Igor Petrov

Editor’s note: For his dissertation on post-Soviet evangelical seminary leadership styles, Igor Petrov interviewed 41 stakeholders: 24 students, 13 teachers, and 4 leaders of three institutions: one in northwest Russia, one in northeast Ukraine, and one in southern Ukraine. Although the seminaries are not named, from the descriptions provided, the three institutions in St. Petersburg, Odessa, and Donetsk are among the best-known evangelical theological schools in the former Soviet Union, each with substantial residential campuses. The 13 faculty interviewed (eight male and five female) included 80 to 90 percent of full-time indigenous faculty at the three institutions.

The author’s interviews, conducted between February and April, 2004, sought to identify “assumptions and perceptions of students, teachers, and leaders within three evangelical schools regarding preferred leadership characteristics.” Petrov’s hope is that his research will discourage the continuation of authoritarian leadership styles in favor of leadership inspired by a spirit of “care, support, heart for others, servanthood, and love.” In researching leadership styles in Russian and Ukrainian evangelical seminaries, eight themes emerged with implications for the development of effective leadership in evangelical institutions.

Theme 1: Spiritual Characteristics

Humility is one of the most important parts of spirituality (duchovnost’) in a leader’s character and style. This emphasis upon humility stems from at least two sources: a desire for an Eastern Orthodox type of spirituality, deeply rooted in the Slavic mentality and well represented in Russian Orthodox Church history through the lives of saints and spiritual leaders, and a desire to restrict strong, authoritarian tendencies which are deeply imbedded in leadership styles in the former Soviet Union. Respondents strongly rebuked any kind of pride, using biblical references to support their position. Instead, they stressed trust in God in spite of changing situations, pressures, and uncertainties faced by evangelical schools in Russia and the Ukraine.

Leaders with a pastor’s and father’s heart and an attitude of spiritual servant hood will be respected and will be able to serve effectively in the evangelical school environment. Leaders who have a strong, caring relationship with a support group with whom they can share their burdens and pressures will be better able to sustain a healthy spiritual life and will be better able to guard against burnout.

Theme 2: Practical Skills and Personal Traits

Living in countries with high levels of corruption, respondents strongly emphasized the importance of honesty and sincerity in their leaders, especially in relationships, decision-making, and financial management. All of those interviewed emphasized so-called “soft” characteristics and personal traits of leaders: humility, understanding ,tender heartedness, kindness, attentiveness, love, and forgiving, tolerant spirit. Only a few respondents recommended such “hard” characteristics as decisiveness, courage, strength, strictness, and confidence. No one mentioned strong will or determination as desirable characteristics.

Russian respondents showed some preference for strong, and even strict leadership, while the majority of Ukrainian respondents preferred “soft “characteristics in leaders. All respondents strongly demonstrated a dislike for any form of ambition or career pursuit. This does not mean that school leaders never have ambition and never want to pursue careers. Rather, these characteristics are often strongly present, but well-disguised.

Theme 3: Relational Characteristics

The character and quality of relationships is very important within Russian and Ukrainian collectivist cultures, which emphasize building and maintaining deep personal ties and friendships. Since a respect for authority is strongly affirmed in Slavic cultures, leaders, by their example, play a very significant role in building relationships of trust, care, mutual support, and sincere fellowship. The primary means of teaching and learning throughout the ten centuries of Orthodox culture in Russia has been by example through relationships, narratives, ceremonies, and visual representation.(The Orthodox Church laid the foundation forth Russian and Ukrainian worldview, mentality, spirituality, arts, literature, architecture, music, and lifestyle.) An effective evangelical school leader will not reject this cultural and historical foundation, but rather, will learn to “ride the wave of culture”(A. Trompenaars and C. Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Global Business, 2nd ed. [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998]).

As regards undesirable relational characteristics in leaders, respondents identified arrogance, coldness, a top-down approach, and indifference tithe needs of co-workers and students. People do not like to be manipulated or used by leaders. Rather, people appreciate leaders who personally relate to them. Still, most Russian and Ukrainian respondents believe leaders deserve respect. The familiarity of “hey buddy” type relationships between leaders and followers is considered inappropriate.

Unlike many Western cultures, in the former Soviet Union competitiveness in relationships is viewed negatively. Therefore, it follows that an effective leader will need to find ways to demonstrate and develop a spirit of cooperation, support, and servant hood. Ideal leaders will build God’s Kingdom, not their own personal “kingdoms.”

Theme 4: Approach to Decision-Making

Societies and cultures with strong collectivistic values seem more accepting of authoritarianism in their leaders than do more individualistic cultures. They are far quicker to allow leaders to make major organizational decisions. Part of the explanation may be found in a paradoxical feature of Slavic culture. As one respondent noted, “We want a strong leader, but at the same time, we rebel against a strong leader.” Russians historically have had to endure severe laws and at the same time have survived by regularly disregarding laws. “Why is our leadership’s authoritarian,” one respondent asked. “Because we do not follow our laws.” This dynamic is true in Russian and Ukrainian seminaries in which “the leader’s word happens to be the last word.”

 However, several recent examples in evangelical schools in Russia and Ukraine show that the formerly effective and mostly authoritarian decision making style no longer works so well. Seminary leaders will be more effective if they learn to share decision-making with a leadership team, as well as with school workers and the student body. Russian and Ukrainian respondents demonstrated contrasting attitudes towards leaders’ approach to decision making. The majority of St. Petersburg school respondents tended to support an authoritarian style of leadership, even idealizing authoritarianism. Several respondents fervently defended authoritarianism because it was said to eliminate anarchy, bring order, make organizational structure clear, and maintain proper subordination in relationships. In contrast, no Ukrainian respondents supported authoritarianism. Instead, they preferred to see decisions made by a leadership team. All Ukrainian respondents favored the development of a more democratic style of leadership in their schools.

Theme 5: The Leader’s Role in the Development of Vision

One respondent effectively summarized the leader’s role in casting vision. An effective school leader “understands the organization, foresees future developments, predicts challenges to come, and takes necessary steps to deal with these challenges.”

Theme 6: Styles of Motivation

Russian and Ukrainian church leaders generally practice less positive motivation compared to Western leaders, employing discipline and punishment too often. In general, people do not like authoritarian ways. Nor do they respond well to the use of manipulation as motivation. In the long run positive motivation—including encouragement, love, support, care, prayer, and financial support—produces better results than strict discipline, fear, and words of rebuke.

Biblical and spiritual motivations remain essential means of motivation in evangelical schools, especially in situations where financial rewards are limited. Leaders are best served – and serve best– who generate trust and show personal interest in faculty and students and empower them. In short, leaders in theological education lead best who employ reward more and punishment less.

Theme 7: Cultural and Social Factors Influencing Leadership Style

“An instinctive love-hate relationship to the Wests a historically rooted facet of Russian mentality” (Miriam Charter, “Theological Education for New Protestant Churches of Russia: Indigenous Judgments on the Appropriateness of Educational Methods and Styles,” Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997, p. 206). Teachers and students in the St. Petersburg school were more critical of the indigenous approach to leadership and more positive about the Western approach because they had experienced good examples of Western leadership in their institution. In contrast, Odessa and Donetsk respondents tended to see positive characteristics in both Western and Eastern styles of leadership.

Russian and Ukrainian leaders pay close attention to relationships, which makes for better understanding and better cooperation between leaders and faculty. On the other hand, Eastern leaders benefit when they adopt such positive characteristics of Western practice as punctuality, attention to organization, realistic planning, and goal orientation. Eastern leaders who learn from Western leaders how to function in a democratic manner, how to be better organized, how to plan ahead, and how to build a better organizational structure, are able to model these characteristics for the benefit of new leaders and students. Finally, during conflict resolution the Western tendency to depend more on rational thinking and less on emotion has also been instructive for Russian and Ukrainian leaders.

Theme 8: Biblical and Theological Insights That Provide Guidelines for Building Leaders

The majority of respondents employed Scripture to best characterize spiritual traits needed in a leader. In particular, biblical examples were cited to stress the need for leaders with humility, wisdom, and pastor’s heart for people. Respondents cited several biblical figures as examples of effective leaders, including Jesus, Paul, Moses, Joshua, David, and Joseph. Interestingly, respondents rarely cited Bible verses describing strong leadership characteristics such as courage and decisiveness. They did not describe the strong spiritual warrior for Christ dressed and equipped for battle. Rather, “soft “characteristics of biblical leaders were commended including kindness, humility, spiritual depth, and a caring heart.

Perestroika in Evangelical Schools

A number of evangelical schools in the former Soviet Union are in the process of redefining their school goals and objectives. They are also considering substantive changes in school structure and curricula. Several institutions are seeking to adjust their educational approach in order to respond to the challenges of a changing economy. Increasingly, evangelical schools are seeking to bring their educational programs directly to students in churches via various forms of distance learning 

Edited excerpts published with permission from IgorPetrov, “Leadership Styles in Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Schools,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2007.

Igor Petrov serves as distance education coordinator for Trinity Bible College, Kursk,Russia.