21st century leadership competencies include being conscious of where you are in your own identity development. By identity development I mean where you are in your understanding of your own feelings about your skin color, privilege, socio economic status (class), nationality, gender and ethnicity. You know, all the stuff leaders never talk about, at least not in public and rarely behind closed doors. Yes, this is soft-skills squared. However, can you really afford not to understand the roots and values behind your decision-making about people?
When a leader is aware of their identity development they are able to see beyond the filters they were raised with. Those leaders who have actively acquired multicultural intelligence and experience with diversity will be more likely to understand the effects of difference on their workforce and have broader lenses through which to understand the human beings they lead. A leader who has taken time to consider their identity development (which is an ongoing process) will be able to see their followers’ contributions and strengths for what they are beyond projected stereotypes that we all suffer from.
Here is an example of how we come by our limiting filters. I grew up in a very white, Anglo Saxon Protestant town in the east coast US state of Connecticut. I wasn’t racist but because I had little exposure to people of other cultures and skin colors, I was ignorant about difference. What passed for diversity in my neighborhood were the Italian Catholics versus the Nordic WASPS.
If you had asked me when I was in my early twenties how I had accomplished whatever it was I had, I would have told you hard work. But the truth is that the artist who hired me to run his business did so in part because of my skin color. The entrepreneur who hired me to keep her books hired me over others in part because of my skin color. Note, I am not saying that the people who hired me wouldn’t have hired someone with a different skin color. But I was white in a community of predominantly white people. Even in a community that was not predominantly, Los Angeles, white my skin color was a privilege that landed me a choice job at a trial jury consulting firm after only one interview. Same with the private bank I worked in in downtown LA. There are projections and assumptions about how trustworthy and smart and capable I am that come with my skin color. This is how privilege works.
Privilege is invisible, but lack of it is felt at the most visceral level. When I was running the artist’s business and still on the east coast I had a roommate whose mother was caucasian and father was African American. One day as we were coming out of our apartment headed to work a neighbor yelled across the street at me, “Hey, have you seen that black girl?” My roommate was right behind me and yelled back to him, “You’re only half right.” She was understandably angry. No one ever came looking for me calling for that white girl. It’s amazing how quickly we reduce each other in these ways.
I chose to go to Los Angeles for graduate school specifically because of LA’s diversity. I knew by going I would confront my own ignorance about difference on a number of levels. Fast forward fifteen years later and I teach privilege and difference to my leadership students and I am still learning the many nuances that exist regarding how we understand and value or devalue other people. I still confront my filters and judgments I make – but do so consciously. Anyone who tells you they don’t see color or are colorblind is unconscious of their own identity development. Acknowledging your privilege and getting off the platform of hard work when factoring in your achievements is an uncomfortable thing to do but a necessary thing to do if you expect to lead all your followers - if you want to access all that brain power versus only the chosen few who represent those you are most familiar with. Most leaders today and the great majority of leaders in the next few years will not have this luxury.
The demographic makeup of the workforce is rapidly changing and in the next five years will be much more diverse. If you have led people who mostly look like you, have similar life experiences and values then the challenge is to be able to understand people you lead outside your experience.
Innovation and keeping a competitive advantage depends upon being able to recognize and value input from people with many different points of view and many different ways of expressing those points of view. Gemstones have many facets. For a truly spectacular gem you need to polish and refine all the facets, not just some. The value of your workforce is in their differences and being able to cull out of those varied viewpoints answers to tough adaptive challenges all leaders face in today’s volatile marketplace.
Here are some simple things you can do to understand your own ability to lead a multicultural workforce:
- To learn more about privilege go here.
- Get feedback from your followers about what frustrates them and what motivates them regarding how you lead.
- Look at your closest circle and if they all look like you or are from the same school or socio economic background, reach out and get to know others in your company who don’t.
- In your interactions with others note what makes you feel comfortable and what does not and then ask why. It’s the reflective work we do on our own that allows us to be mindful on our feet.
- If you are leading in multiple countries, take a leaf out of Machiavelli’s book and go to those countries and get immersed as much as you can – be curious, ask questions about the culture, norms and values and develop your relationships with your followers there.