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Polycentric leadership: An interview with Joe Handley

“Polycentric mission leadership is a collaborative, communal leadership empowering multiple centers of influence and a diverse array of leaders to meet today's challenges“.

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 78/Jo_Appleton 13 DE DICIEMBRE DE 2023 10:51 h
Joe Handley. / [link]Vista journal[/link]

Alongside polycentric mission, the leadership qualities required to enable organisations and networks to work in this way are described in the book Polycentric Mission Leadership, by Joseph Handley, based on his PhD studies on the topic. 

He defines polycentric mission leadership as “a collaborative, communal leadership empowering multiple centers of influence and a diverse array of leaders to meet today's challenges“, and the following interview gives a further insight into some of his thoughts around the topic.

Where did your interest in polycentric leadership come from?

A. I’ve always been more of a team person; even in sports I preferred team sports like basketball to lone ones like running. Growing up, I also experienced diversity where my best friends were from different cultures.

Then my work environment in mission meant I crossed different cultural streams all the time. 

I was quickly thrown into leadership and became disappointed with top down and leader-centric leadership models being operated with the context in which I served, where the CEO made all the decisions and multiple players on the team were marginalised or not heard.

[destacate]I quickly became disappointed with leader-centric leadership models, where the CEO made all the decisions and multiple players on the team were not heard[/destacate] Often the marginalised ones were on the fringes of influence or society, with no power, meaning the issues that were most important to them or their cultures or nations were unaddressed.

I’d bring up issues with them saying ‘you’re worried about this, should I raise it to the people in that organisation?’, and they would say ‘please don’t, the bottom line is the white guys always win’.  So these were the dynamics behind my dissatisfaction and thinking there must be a better way to go about things.

So where did you look for the different models of leadership?

A. Well I’m a practitioner not a theoretician, so it was painful doing a PhD! The breakthrough came when I read a book by Allen Yeh, a professor at Biola University who looked at the events celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Edinburgh Conference [i].

His thesis was that there was one event in 1910, and mission was uni-directional, the West to the Rest, whereas mission has now changed to the point where there were five congresses in 2010,  all with a fuller representation of the sense of the diversity of the Kingdom of God in the work of mission.

This catapulted me into a new reality where I stared mining data that was surprisingly affirming to the new ideas I was grappling with about how we can have better collaborative systems.

I started studying the idea of Polycentrism which has some heavy roots in Europe – think of the EU, where you have multiple countries with one kind of umbrella group trying to hold them together. 

Combined with the theory of polycentric governance, developed by Elinor Ostrom, an economics academic from Indiana University[ii], I started me on the journey to define a new leadership theory from a global leadership perspective. 

But I am aware it needs to go deeper, integrating leadership theories from East and South Asia, Latin America and Africa.

You say polycentric leadership is a new model of global leadership – is the current one not good enough?

A. I don't think current global leadership theories are comprehensive enough. The ideas of global leadership that I’ve studied, such as Hofstede[iii] or the Globe study[iv] are fairly nascent and I’m not sure they have captured all of the nuances of leadership in a global setting.

When I’ve read those models I don’t see as much about the communal nature of the work.  And because I’m dealing with the mission world, a unique area is the spirituality of leadership.

There is a category in the Globe study called ‘Charismatic leadership’ which does address character, your integrity and your trustworthiness. This is different from Charismatic leadership theory  which is more about the ‘woo’ and ‘winsomeness’ of the leader. 

I think you pre-empted my next question – I reacted strongly against your use of the word ‘Charismatic’ as a characteristic of polycentric leadership.  Did you consider using a different word to avoid it being mis-understood?

A. No I didn’t, although I think that further research will determine whether some of the themes should be merged or further developed, or called something different. 

One of the words I changed was ‘freedom’ to ‘entrepreneurial’ – but I mean having the freedom to act in the way you feel is right in your context. And these are nuances in the language that are going to flesh themselves out over the long haul.

Is there the risk that the word ‘polycentric’ becomes just another fad, the way the word ‘missional’ was used a lot ten years ago, but isn’t heard very often now?

A. It’s possible that it is just another buzz word that people have latched on to, but I think it’s interesting that it’s only in the evangelical world that it is a new concept. You could argue that you can trace its roots right back to early Christian practice.

The Bible articulates a plural vision for leadership. In the beginning, God said let ‘us’ make man in ‘our’ own image. For me, this forms a leadership paradigm that flows throughout scripture.

While some pastors have described a Mosaic mantle for CEO/top down leadership, the reality is that Moses said he didn’t speak so well when asked to lead, and God gave him Aaron.

[destacate]“The Bible articulates a plural vision for leadership. In the beginning, God said let us make man in our own image. For me, this forms a leadership paradigm that flows throughout scripture”[/destacate]  Later Jethro advised him to decentralize leadership. Even the kings had prophets to advise them as the Lord clearly preferred that there only be one King (himself).

Follow into the New Testament and the scriptures describe a plurality of elders and deacons to provide leadership. When Paul planted churches, he would equip not only a shepherd but elders to guide church life. This model appears to be core to the early life of the Church.

Then polycentric governance has been researched over the last three to five decades, , and the Munich School of Christianity has looked at Polycentric mission for at least two decades.

But there are now mission organisations who are shifting to internationalisation or becoming global corporations trying better to learn from one another and that’s exciting.

You say you think the theory can be improved – what does that look like?

A. I want people to test my theory in their practice, and come up with better systems and models. I think it can be drastically improved so I’m hoping that it will catalyse research – there are at least six people that I know of who are doing dissertations on this.

I’m also looking at personally doing more research on it and coming out with a more pragmatic approach on how to operationalise it.  

And the third stream is that I’ve been challenged to write about the Trinitarian form of leadership as part of the model.

When I came up with that idea, majority world leaders just like embraced it and the people who pushed back the most were Western theologians who said it was putting too much onto the idea of the Trinity. So I want to explore that more.

So if you have an organisation who is inspired by your book to become more polycentric, what needs to happen?

A. Let me tell you a story – when I joined my mission fifteen years ago, we were known as a pretty collaborative organisation. But in the first year, I heard of all these White guys flying around the world, making decisions with only one Asian guy in the room.

At the same time my colleague did a study of movement leadership, for example social movements. We started adapting our systems to where we empowered people and leadership became much more localised.

We learnt to listen really well. For example, the words my Cambodian friend hated the word ‘sustainability’ – for him the word meant ‘abandonment’’ – it means no ongoing relationship.

So we went from aiming for independence from dependence to an interdependent organisation, As soon as I talked about this, my friend said ‘this is what we need’ .

Now we have imported these voices into our leadership for the future. If they are being quiet in the room we tell the others to keep quiet.

So if an organisation or network wants to become more polycentric, I think that is the biggest change they require – really listening, doing it with humility, and then having the integrity to follow up on what you are hearing.


About Joe

Joseph Handley has devoted his life to accelerating leaders for mission movements. He is the president/CEO of A3, a global network that equips leaders for the Church ( and marketplace ( 

He serves as a Global Catalyst for Leadership with the Lausanne Movement and affiliated faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior, Joe was founding director of Azusa Pacific University’s Office of World Mission and lead mission pastor at Rolling Hills Covenant Church. 

His book Polycentric Mission Leadership  and more about Polycentric Leadership can be found here

Polycentric Mission Leadership: Toward a New Theoretical Model for Global Leadership by Joe Handley is published by Regnum books and available from online booksellers.


Jo Appleton is one of the founding editors of Vista.

Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the november 2023 edition of Vista Journal. 



[i] Yeh, Allen. Polycentric Missiology: 21st Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere. 2016

[ii] Ostrom, Elinor (June 2010). "Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems". American Economic Review. American Economic Association. 100 (3): 641–72.

[iii] Hofstede, G., and Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.

[iv] Robert J. House, Peter W. Dorfman, Mansour Javidian, Paul J. Hanges, and Mary F. Sully de Luque, Strategic Leadership Across Cultures: The GLOBE Study of CEO Leadership Behavior and Effectiveness in 24 countries. 2014




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