Diversity Finds Its Place


HR Magazine, August 2006From Diverse Teams at Work: Capitalizing on the Power of Diversity (SHRM, 2003)


Effective leadership, like beauty, may lie in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, the follower. However, there are some qualities that have withstood the test of time in a variety of circumstances, and it is those we offer as important in creating an effective pluralistic team. No one leader has all of these qualities, certainly not at the same time. And the best leaders are not static. They model the changes and growth they try to develop in their team members. In Worksheet 9-2 check any that you believe you demonstrate most of the time. They demonstrate the following ten behaviors.

  1. Effective leaders have self-esteem and confidence, which creates a nondefensive, open environment. This sense of wholeness and confidence is important in any environment. But it is more so in a pluralistic one because perceptions of unequal treatment and conflict take on extra volatility when the racial, ethnic, and gender mix of the group is complex. Without a solid foundation of self-confidence, it is difficult for the leader to remain nondefensive and maintain an even tone of voice in dealing with hot spots. The self-esteem and confidence a leader feels is broadcast and extended to others. It creates a feeling of security and stability on which the team can build group confidence.

  2. Effective leaders have a vision that generates enthusiasm and commitment. Former President George Bush talked about "that vision thing." Not having one was part of the bad rap he faced in the 1992 elections, and that phrase was proof positive to students of leadership that he didn't have any. On the other hand, his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, is almost always described as a master leader because he had a clear picture of where he wanted to take the country and he engendered enough support to accomplish most of his goals. Reagan's "vision thing" was crystal clear and was a key aspect of his leadership.

    Above all else, distinguished leaders earn their reputations because they have committed and passionate followers. Strong leader-followers relationships won't occur in the absence of a decisive vision. Painting a picture of where you want to lead a team and then sharing it with those who can help you achieve the goals imbue team members with a sense of purpose and clarity about why, beyond a paycheck, team members even bother to show up for work. The truth is that leaders with unarticulated visions unwittingly squander opportunities to make the difference they hope to and in fact can make-if they capitalize on their positions visually.

  3. Effective leaders expand their knowledge and awareness of culture and its influence, as well as other diversity-related issues. Diversity, as we have been saying throughout this book, includes everyone. It's not a black thing, a gay thing, or a woman's thing. A leader who wants to maximize output and help all people grow and contribute understands that diversity includes white men too, discusses cultural norms with team members, and stops perpetuating the myth that you have to be a person of color to have a culture. An effective leader doesn't advocate any particular group's position, but understands or is willing to explore issues and customs of members from all group. "It's the modeling and openness, stupid" to paraphrase campaign manager James Carville from the 1992 presidential campaign.

  4. Effective leaders catalyze support for the collective common good, not just parochial self-interest. Real leadership gets beyond enlightened (or even unenlightened) self-interest and helps followers minimize the myopia so common in organizational and national life these days. In the "what's in it for me" era we live in, it takes courage, integrity, and vision to stake out positions that go for the larger good, often at some sacrifice to self and others. Beyond courage, integrity, and vision, it takes leadership to advocate positions, often unpopular, that ask people to stretch and grow, be less selfish and more generous, be less narrow and more compassionate. It is risky behavior, but that is just the stuff of leadership legends. (May we discover more of them!)

  5. Effective leaders maintain a sense of humor and perspective. This is sometimes very tough to do when it appears that it's "Chicken Little and the sky is falling" time. We have a very recent example. As we finish this book, the November 1994 elections have just ended. It's no secret that, however you interpret these election results, they were not an endorsement of President Bill Clinton's presidency to date. One of his areas of disagreement with Republicans pertains to term limits. Although the president believes term limits are built in because voters can retire any elected official, Republicans want a formal policy limiting terms. The day after the election, White House reporters stated that the president, joking about having to work with an adversarial Republican Congress, said that term limits were starting to look more attractive. He may have lost a lot of things on November 8, but his sense of humor wasn't one of them. It can make difficult situations a little easier, and it also helps team members realize that what they do may be meaningful and important, but it doesn't have to be dour or earth shaking. Humor can be risky, but when not directed at others' expense, it has real value as a salve and a catharsis.

  6. Effective leaders are trustworthy and dependable. Leadership is, ultimately, about trust. We have talked about trust before in this book. Part of what makes trust so complicated cross-culturally is that it is defined and demonstrated differently. With that in mind, since this book is written for domestic audiences and their work teams, we believe strongly that in mainstream American culture, your word is your bond. Being able to count on someone's performance, being able to predict that the leader is a straight shooter is invaluable. When conversations can be taken on faith, most team members can deal with, work around, or problem-solve most any issue. The other bonus regarding trustworthiness is that when the leader is perceived to be trustworthy, no one spends time on parking-lot and restroom agendas trying to get the real story, because the real story has already been told.

  7. Effective leaders have an internal standard of excellence. This quality may be intangible, but it becomes noticeable over time when people work together in an organization. Part of why it's noteworthy is because in most organizations, people are afraid of rejection and risk, so they let others set the standards.

    It can be invigorating and sometimes frustrating to have someone use his or her own standard of excellence if it becomes an obstruction to the team. It is possible that a perfectionist who imposes perfectionism on others, for example, would ultimately have the effect of dampening people's motivation, since many might feel that whatever they do isn't good enough. This scenario is possible and would not yield a positive outcome.

    However, try this picture on for size. Imagine a leader who keeps challenging herself to do better and to exceed her own expectations. She isn't perfect and doesn't expect herself to be. But she won't take an honest day's pay for less than a full commitment to excellence or to continued growth and improvement. This leader not only role-models high standards, but also works to clear away obstacles that get in the way of those she leads. She rewards people for setting their own high standards within the context of the team objective. We like this picture and have seen it work well. We hope you have too.

  8. Effective leaders are responsive and empathetic toward others. For those of you who read the word empathetic and worried that we're turning the work environment into a therapy session, relax. We aren't. What we are saying, though, is that we humans have both head and heart. We respond to the intellectual, idea part of the job, but we also respond with a strong emotional component to the things that happen to us and to others. Our emotional responses are based on the interpretations we make about events, and those interpretations aren't always valid. But valid or not, they are real. Good leaders are willing to invest a little time in listening to and empathizing with team members about these issues. Much good can come from this. Sometimes venting frustrations can be both helpful and cleansing. But a good leader isn't only a passive listener. There is also a chance, once people vent, to instruct, teach, and challenge. There is an opportunity to help people see the other side of the coin. After you've listened and empathized, you can legitimately ask, "What are you going to do about it?" Being responsive builds leader-team member relationships. It also builds more empowered people.

  9. Effective leaders match their words with their deeds. Authenticity is not a word frequently used to describe effective leadership, but we think it could and should be. In the broader culture, this thought or behavior is commonly attributed to author and business consultant Tom Peters and his "walk the talk" mentality. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the mid-1800s, said, "I can't hear what you're saying because what you are rings so loudly in my ears." Translation? If your words and deeds don't match, people will believe the deeds. A good leader has consistency between the two. It is worth noting that when we are asked to conduct focus groups around diversity issues, what comes up almost every time relates more to excellent management than diversity. It is the complaint that management has a double standard. We cannot even estimate in dollars the damage to companies when this is the perception. Leadership excellence presumes and necessitates no ambiguity between what you say and what you do.

    This authenticity is more noticeable on sticky issues. We remember when John Sculley was CEO of Apple Computer. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition in his organization actively pushed for same-sex partner benefits. The issue had not yet been resolved, but it was being explored. In the meantime, Sculley's leadership was evident by his presence at the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in 1993. He did not have the company of many other CEOs at this event, but he was there, walking his talk. For him it was a human rights issue and he didn't duck.

  10. Effective leaders are aware of their own feelings and reactions to interpersonal experiences and try to maintain objectivity. Just because you're a leader at some level in the organization doesn't mean you're not human. You don't relinquish your right to feel things deeply, to be hurt, to feel joy and pride and/or a host of other responses on life's emotional palette.

    But what it does mean is that effective leaders know their own issues, and are aware of buttons that can be pushed and predictable reactions that are their patterns. They are, to quote a member of one of Lee Gardenswartz's teams, "in the moment." By understanding themselves and their responses, they have a greater chance of maintaining objectivity. Doing so will be a real plus. It will lead to less defensiveness, a more open climate, a sense that one can suggest anything and it will be given a hearing, and a belief that the team has a leader whole enough and healthy enough to listen to others, value their views, and defer to their suggestions when appropriate. All of these benefits can't happen when you react out of your feelings but don't know that you're doing so, why you're doing so, and that it can have harmful effects.

For more information on the book and how to buy it, go to http://www.shrm.org/books/diverseteams/


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