Diversity; or, “Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign”

Last night I had dinner with a coworker from a different office. He’s in town for work this week and we met  tonight for some good food and great conversation. It got my thinking about a topic that I think is essential to leadership- and leadership is something near and dear to my heart. The topic we were talking about was diversity.

In his book Winning, Jack Welch quickly dismisses mission statements that reference integrity. It’s assumed- integrity for an organization is table stakes. You’ve got to have it just to sit down at the table and be dealt a hand. There’s nothing special about an organization (or leader!) placing a value on integrity. It’s expected- move on. Tell us something special.

Diversity, or more appropriately, understanding the value of diversity, is similar table stakes for a leader. There’s nothing magical about it. But you’d better understand it if you want to be an effective leader. Moreover, you owe it to your people if you are in a leadership position.

In our conversation this evening, we both quickly agreed that “diversity” was a great word while “tolerance” was a terrible one. “Tolerance” connotes a value judgment. The viewer accepts, perhaps grudgingly, a value or trait disagreeable or inferior to their own. I have been known to tolerate assholes or fools. That is simply me being the bigger man. (Ain’t I great?) And a leader that merely “tolerates” those different in look, thought, or being from himself or herself is headed for disaster.

Valuing diversity, on the other hand, is an entirely different trait. A leader that values diversity doesn’t necessarily have any inherent advantage- but it ensures that a leader won’t discount or overlook the richness of their people because of their natural differentiation. Height, weight, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, dog person or cat person- not a single of one these characteristics define a person’s ability or potential. They are descriptive, not definitive. OK- one exception- everyone knows that dog people are inherently superior…

Demonstrating a commitment to diversity is the necessary step for a leader that wants to build an effective organization. A leader, and by extension, their organization, that demonstrates their commitment to diversity says- or sings- like Five Man Electrical Band, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray”. It’s an implied promise that a leader can be trusted, that their people can bring their ideas and passions to the group and be judged on the merits of those ideas. It builds trust.

As a leader, you’ll have no problem finding opinions in your group that agree with you. A leader needs to be ever vigilant for that trap. A leader needs to seek out and cultivate contrary perspectives. Unless that leader is infallible, it’s inevitable that at some point a leader will make a bad decision. A leader that has built a team unafraid to disagree and speak up is more likely to get that important second opinion.

Nothing I’ve written suggests that a leader can abdicate their responsibilities to lead. But the effective leader has a team that brings him or her a diverse set of perspectives and helps ensure that all factors are considered. That leader has the advantage of all of the team’s many perspectives and experiences. Not every perspective leads to the correct decision. But a leader that demonstrates a commitment to diversity is more likely to have a team member be willing to speak up the next time- after that team member’s idea may have been considered but rejected.

The funny thing about diversity- the people that need it, don’t get it when we talk about diversity. The ones that diversity training is targeted to don’t understand it. The people that do- don’t need the training. I am by turns optimistic and pessimistic. In general, people don’t change. Nor do they learn from other people’s mistakes. (Otherwise humanity’s history would be a series of singularly occurring disasters which would then result in the survivors saying, “Wow! We’re not ever going to do THAT again!”) Every once in a while, though, we get lucky. Someone catches that spark of a new perspective.

If that’s you- and you don’t really get the value of diversity- maybe you’ll catch that new perspective. If you want to be an effective leader, it’s the price of admission. Without it you don’t stand a chance. If you already understand the value of diversity, congratulations.

Now go lead your people!

[As a disclaimer, please allow me to point out that these are merely my personal views formed through a variety of experiences in different roles and organizations. They should not be considered the official views of my company. My words, thoughts, and perspective are mine alone!  -T]

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