Have a look at assertiveness in action in the ministry of a movement catalyst in Southeast Asia. You’ll maximize your take-away if you put aside your judgment on whether or not you like what he wants to achieve here and instead focus solely on how he asserts himself in the life of a new Christ-follower from a Muslim background. The catalyst relates this heated encounter, and I share it in his own words: “I struggled relentlessly for hours on end with a Sufi sheikh that had become a Christian. I challenged him to return to his people. I countered every argument for hours on end. I prophesied too, that if he makes the sacrifice of once again living under Islamic law for the sake of the gospel just as Timothy did under the Mosaic law, some of the most important people in the nation will also follow Jesus, and then we will see a massive turning to Christ in his nation. He has nearly committed to do so… It will probably take several months though …”
Can you feel how strongly the catalysts asserts himself toward the sheikh-become-disciple? Listen again to the words he uses to describe just how assertive he is: struggling – challenging – countering every argument – prophesying (predicting consequences). How? Relentlessly. How long? Hours on end in this one encounter. Several months more to come.
Not knowing all the ins and outs of this situation, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this encounter myself. The catalyst felt that such assertiveness was needed in this interaction, which had the potential to lead to a nation-wide turning to Christ. Assertiveness is required in the catalyzing of movements, in many other encounters. Assertiveness characterizes effective catalysts.
In the past, I personally have been torn about assertiveness. Torn between challenging myself: ‘Emanuel, why aren’t you courageous enough to be more assertive here, to take full advantage of this opportunity?’ Yet at the same time scared: ‘Oh, I hope I don’t scar this relationship by being too assertive!’
Can you relate?
Up to today I still don’t get it right all the time. Yet over time I have discovered the guiding principles of how to apply assertiveness – for impact and healthy relationships. In this article I’ll share them with you. You’ll also learn from other catalysts how they use assertiveness in their movement ministry and what it contributes to movement outcomes. Movement catalysts can be very assertive at times. How do they do it? And how do they make sure they don’t overdo it? What does assertiveness contribute to movement breakthrough? You will find these questions answered in this article. You’ll also find practical guidelines on how to exhibit assertiveness in your ministry in the right dosage, for maximum impact and healthy relationships.
The six factors that correlate with movement breakthrough
Assertiveness is one of the six factors that correlate with movement breakthrough. I recently posted an article on these factors (see “The factors that actually start movements”). Three of the six factors have to do with ministry approaches, and they are:
Developing the right ministry strategy
Using a discovery group approach
Raising up leaders effectively
The other three factors that correlate with movements are specific qualities of the primary movement catalyst. An effective movement catalyst is characterized by a set of particular traits and competencies which I call Catalytic Qualities. The three Catalytic Qualities that correlate with movement breakthrough are:
Influencing Others’ Beliefs
What is assertiveness?
Webster’s Dictionary defines assertive as: “positive or confident in a persistent way.” Applied to movement ministry, I used this fuller definition in my research with catalysts:
Assertiveness is: the motivation to influence people and situations, even to the extent of dominating, sharing one’s beliefs and convictions clearly so that people take notice, and being bold and courageous even when facing opposition and threat.
A few comments on what’s noteworthy for our understanding of assertiveness.
The motivation is to influence people and situations toward worthy outcomes. It is not self-assertion for the sake of oneself (self-aggrandizement) nor for the sake of itself (winning for winning sake).
The outcome makes it crystal clear whether or not appropriate assertiveness has taken place. People take notice and respond, in contrast to much other communication that is merely “noise.”
Opposition and threat do not stop an assertive leader from being assertive.
They key activity is sharing one’s beliefs and convictions clearly. Everyone has great clarity about exactly what the assertive catalyst is convinced of and wants to see happen.
Finally (and this is the very fine art of impactful and healthy assertiveness) it is exerted even to the extent of dominating others. Each of us responds differently when reading this, primed by our previous experience with assertive people in our lives. We’ll shed more light on this in a moment.
Mixed voices on assertiveness
Each of us has had unique experiences which strongly colour how we perceive assertiveness, whether in this article or in real life. Three main voices, and corresponding experiences, shape our perception.
Voice 1: Too much is assertiveness bad.
Probably all of us have been hurt at some point by an assertive person, who came into a situation like a steamroller, rolling over everything and everyone. We were left feeling rolled over. Hence, most of us have some reservations about assertiveness. Too much of it must be bad. Author Daniel Sinclair echoes this sentiment when describing traits of apostolic leaders: “Areas of the flesh can include self-confidence, over-assertiveness, and independence” (Sinclair, A Vision of the Possible, 2005:6). Note that Sinclair refers to it as an “area of the flesh.” Note also that he refers to “over-assertiveness,” not assertiveness per se. The question is: “When does assertiveness turn into over-assertiveness? When does it become too much?” Sinclair doesn’t address this. We will in a moment.
Voice 2: In some cultural contexts assertiveness is bad.
Those of us who are inter-culturally aware may think immediately: “But in some societies, Asian for example, assertiveness is counter-cultural and not a helpful trait for a catalyst.” In fact, in a previous study on catalysts in Muslim peoples I reported: “The trait of assertiveness may depend on the context. It was established that pioneer leaders ministering in Asian societies exhibit a relatively low correlation with assertiveness, because Asian cultures are by nature very indirect and non-assertive. However, pioneer leaders ministering in African societies indeed correlate strongly with assertiveness” (Prinz, 2016: 155).
But I wasn’t content. So I asked friends who are Asian or minister in Asia. Their perspectives encouraged me to think: Assertiveness is expressed in all cultures, including Asian ones. A check of the GLOBE Study (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2013), the largest study on cultural values, confirms this. It reports that on a 1-5 scale, most of Europe (between 3.43 and 3.98) rate lower in assertiveness than Southern Asia (4.17) and Confucian Asia (4.35). Latin Europe (4.31) and Anglo (US & UK – 4.36) do not rate higher than Confucian Asia (4.35) (Den Hartog, 2013:427). The conclusion:
Appropriate assertiveness is expressed differently from culture to culture. In ministry, assertiveness needs to be expressed in culturally appropriate ways. We need find ways to be “positive or confident in a persistent way,” as per our general definition.
My recent study of 307 pioneer leaders (Prinz & Goldhor, 2022) verified assertiveness, defined as above, for movement catalysts who come from and serve in all six mega-cultures of the world, including Asia. I concluded that rather than discarding assertiveness as bad in some cultures, the question is rather how assertiveness is expressed appropriately in each culture.
Voice 3: There is no leadership without assertiveness.
Years ago, when studying for a doctorate in intercultural leadership, I found that all major publications on leadership traits list assertiveness as an essential trait of an effective leader.
The most influential leadership trait author, Ralph Stogdill, conducted a qualitative review of 163 trait studies that had been published prior to 1974 (Stogdill, 1974). This review identified characteristics that meet any of these three qualifications: they “differentiate (1) leaders from followers, (2) effective leaders from ineffective leaders, and (3) higher echelon from lower echelon leaders” (Stogdill, 1974:81). One of the characteristics, supported by ten or more studies, was: assertiveness.
Robert Hogan and colleagues (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994) conducted a general review of leadership theory, in which they specifically examined the correlation of personality and leadership effectiveness. They too list assertiveness as a leadership trait.
I could go on. But I won’t. In simple terms, no leader is effective without the trait of assertiveness. And there is no effective leadership without the element of assertiveness.
What has been written about Christian apostolic leaders follows in the same vein. Daniel Sinclair (2005:6) states about apostolic leaders in no uncertain terms:
“They tend not to back down very easily – on anything!”
Equally, no effective movement catalyzing happens without the element of assertiveness. And there is no effective catalyst without the trait of assertiveness. Both has been verified by my own research, as stated above.
No effective movement catalyzing happens without assertiveness.
How to integrate the diverse voices on assertiveness
How shall we bring together the diverse voices on assertiveness? “Assertiveness, yes, but please not too much of it.” “Assertiveness, yes, but please in the appropriate cultural expression.” “Assertiveness, yes, but please not too little.”
I learned the hard way, through trial and error. I made my share of mistakes, sadly, being too assertive at times and hurting people along the road, and I apologized to them. At times, sadly, not having the courage to be as assertive as the situation demanded and missing opportunities. Yet, apparently I have grown some, enough that the Father would use me to start a movement. Only years later was I able to articulate the intuitive sense I developed over time. Fellow leadership researchers Daniel Ames and Francis Flynn have helped me greatly in that. They describe the relationship between assertiveness and effectiveness as “curvilinear” (2007: 307). What in the world does that mean?
The following graph (Ames & Flynn, 2007: 318) makes it clear. A leader who exhibits low assertiveness (x axis) will also have low leadership effectiveness (y axis). With increasing assertiveness exhibited, leadership effectiveness also increases. However, only up to a certain point. If assertiveness continues to rise (beyond 3 in the chart), leadership effectiveness begins to decline. A leader can show too little assertiveness or express too much; both leave them with limited leadership effectiveness. The golden range of “just the right amount” of assertiveness yields the greatest leadership impact.
Graph 1: Assertiveness and Leadership Effectiveness
What determines the “golden range”? The next graph (Ames & Flynn, 2007: 319) depicts how the relevant realities feature and need to be considered. The first relevant reality is “change outcomes.” This is the measure of change we want to bring about, which is why we express assertiveness. The second reality that must be considered equally, however, is “relational outcomes.” When expressing a certain measure of assertiveness, how will that effect the relationship? There are three ranges. Range 1: too little assertiveness yields too little change, plus the relational outcome is not good either, because others will likely not respect the catalyst as much and not perceive them as someone by whom they are inclined to be influenced. Range 2: more assertiveness yields more change, plus the relational outcome increases, as others respect the catalyst more and will be inclined to be receptive to their influence. If assertiveness continues to increase, we reach Range 3: the realm of too much assertiveness, which leads to the change outcomes being maximized, however at a huge price – negative relational outcomes and relationships hurt and weakened; meaning the overall outcome is not positive any longer.
Graph 2: Assertiveness and Leadership Effectiveness
In summary: the more assertiveness, the more change outcomes will be achieved. However, positive relational outcomes require a healthy middle ground between too little and too much assertiveness.
How to identify the “golden range” of assertiveness in the right dosage
Where that “golden range” sits, depends on the recipients and their previous experience with assertiveness and their social expectations. For example, for an Asian, for someone raised by a despotic father, and for someone who has been hurt by a domineering leader, the “golden range” is on the lower end of the spectrum. For an African, for anyone from a society with high power distance, and for anyone from a culture with direct communication, the “golden range” is more toward the higher end of the spectrum.
Practically, where the “golden range” in your sphere of influence lies, is determined by the sweet spot of those you relate to. You need to learn what their “golden range” for assertiveness is.
You need to learn what your people’s “golden range” for assertiveness is.
Leadership is always situational and contingent on followers’ preferences. Therefore, the behaviour we as catalysts choose has to be contingent of the unique situation and people involved. In essence, a transformational leader is always aware of and asking themselves: “How assertive must I be to achieve the change outcomes to get us closer to movement?” And: “How assertive can I be to ensure good relational outcomes?”
Guidelines for applying assertiveness in effective and healthy dosages
Pick your battles. Know when it really matters to influence someone, and when it is okay to be accommodating. In the opening story, the catalyst felt the stakes were such that the future of the nation hinged on him convincing the Muslim-sheikh-turned-disciple.
Determine the appropriate measure of assertiveness by asking yourself: “How assertive must I be to achieve the change outcomes to get us closer to movement?” And: “How assertive can I be to ensure good relational outcomes?”
Ride and relax. Healthy and productive processing benefits from a rhythm, where you go back and forth between asserting yourself for a while (“ride”), and then expressing consideration and inviting the others to respond (“relax”). Going on for too long with self-assertion will erode the rapport, therefore when sensing the rapport is getting lost it is good to shift gears, relax and focus on re-building rapport.
Never risk the relationship! Being overly assertive may bring a win in the moment, giving a short-term gain, yet harm the relationship, resulting in a long-term loss.
Here are specific steps you can take to grow in Assertiveness, gleaned from the lives of effective movement catalysts and my own spiritual experience:
Dare and choose to be assertive.
Experiment with being a little more assertive than you have been.
Identify the situations that truly matter, the watershed moments, and be assertive in them.
Identify the issues that truly matter, the game changers, and be assertive in them. In order to identify them, ask: “What issue would take us closer to movement if I addressed it?
Invite feedback from safe sources on how your assertiveness came across. Ask them: “In your assessment, how effective was it to bring about the needed change? How do you feel the relationships were affected?”
What Are Your Thoughts?
I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below! If you prefer to private-message me, you can use the contact form. Learn more about the other Catalytic Qualities besides Assertiveness in my book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here!
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Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist
Ames, Daniel R. & Francis J. Flynn 2007. What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 2, 307–324.
Den Hertog, Deanne N. 2013. Assertiveness, in Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, & Vipin Gupta (eds.) Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 395-436.
Hogan, Robert, Curphy, Gordon J. & Hogan, Joyce 1994. What we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality. American Psychologist 49, 493-504.
House, Robert J. & Baetz, Mary L. 1979. Leadership: Some empirical generalizations and new research directions, in Barry M. Staw (ed.) Research in organizational behavior Vol. 1. Greenwich: JAI Press, 399-401.
Prinz, Emanuel. 2016. The Leadership Factor in Church Planting Movements: An Examination of the Leader Traits and Transformational Leadership Competencies of Pioneer Leaders Effective in Catalyzing a Church Planting Movement among a Muslim People Group. DMin doctoral dissertation. Columbia: Columbia International University.
Prinz, Emanuel, and Goldhor, Alison. 2022. “The Effective Catalyst: An Analysis of the Traits and Competencies of Pioneers who have Catalyzed a Movement.” Global Missiology 19(1):37-52. http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/2548
Sinclair, Daniel. 2006. A Vision of the Possible: Pioneer Church Planting in Teams. Westmond: Intervarsity Press.
Stogdill, Ralph M. 1948. Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology 25, 35-71.
Stogdill, Ralph M. 1974. Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press.