To lead differently requires grit. In a time where “difference” is still feared and excluded, today’s executive and government leaders must harness grit—which is unwavering courage and tenacity—to model and embrace differences in leadership. Government and industry senior leaders are positioned to continue disrupting the status quo among leadership ranks by creating and cultivating space for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals to lead at all levels in organizations. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader at Magellan Federal, I will share why BIPOC and AAPI leaders are critical to business success and offer ways to help senior leaders diversify those who occupy leadership positions.
Why BIPOC/AAPI Leadership is Business Critical
We all can agree that our world is constantly changing. As a nation, we are more diverse than ever. Still, the group of individuals who occupy leadership positions in many industries is quite homogenous, and the absence of adequate representation across leadership tiers in industries is, unfortunately, not new. Nevertheless, in the wake of a global pandemic, political and social upheaval, and a period that is being called “the great resignation,” the call for representation among leadership has increased and intensified.
Senior leaders are having to re-examine how they perceive and practice leadership to secure the long-term success and health of their organization as employees place greater demands on them to be more diverse and inclusive among leadership ranks. While many senior leaders embrace the idea of diversity, they sometimes grapple with understanding and articulating the nuanced need for and importance of diverse leadership.
One reason more leaders from BIPOC and AAPI communities are critical to the health of organizations is because BIPOC and AAPI leaders—like other people groups—approach leadership from their own diasporic lens. Historically, mainstream leadership in our nation has been largely shaped by Eurocentric ideals, views, and experiences. However, as organizations and businesses become more and more of a microcosm of the diverse world around us, our view and expression of leadership must evolve to reflect the diverse environment in which people work.
Additionally, BIPOC and AAPI leaders are critical to long-term business health because BIPOC and AAPI communities have unique lived experiences that inform how they show up in the workplace. When people come to work, they tend to bring their values, lived experiences, and cultural roots with them to varying degrees. In organizations where difference is embraced and celebrated, individuals are more likely to share their authentic selves, which has the capacity to enrich collaboration and team environments. Moreover, when BIPOC and AAPI leaders have the freedom to lead authentically by leveraging their lived experiences, they can positively contribute to organizational outcomes by modeling and establishing the possibilities of an inclusive culture.
While there are many more reasons BIPOC and AAPI leaders are critical to the health of organizations, it is not enough to simply recognize their importance. Senior leaders must take steps to create and cultivate space for diversified leadership.
How to Diversify Organizational Leadership
For senior leaders, creating space for diverse forms and expressions of leadership will require a great deal of personal introspection along with a commitment to examine the way business is done in one’s organization. The following list is only a handful of actions senior leaders can begin to take to diversify their leadership.
- Confront Your Embedded View of Leadership. If we are honest, many of us are still discovering and shaping our personal commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Contrary to popular belief, this is good because it takes time. However, senior leaders should proactively and diligently confront their personal views, thoughts, assumptions, and ideologies regarding leadership. We all have embedded cognitive scaffolding that creates mental shortcuts to aid in quick decisions. The consistent mental effort required to work against this scaffolding is admittedly rigorous but is critical to identifying biases and errors in our thinking about leadership.
- Examine What Behaviors and Attributes are Rewarded. When building culture, it is important to know that in many cases, what leaders reward—consciously and unconsciously—influences what is repeated in the organization. Observe how (or if) divergent, yet productive forms of leadership are positively highlighted. Take note of how the word “leader” is ascribed to behaviors. When someone offers a contrasting view, do you or other leaders verbalize their thought leadership to signal that this is a welcomed form of leadership?
- Adopt a Positive Psychology (Asset-focus) Lens. Historically, psychology has taken a deficit or pathological view when examining and seeking to understand human thought, effect, and behavior. Such a view is also prevalent in our day-to-day endeavors. We tend to gravitate to what is deemed “normal” and reject what is “different,” leading to the tendency to want to put everyone in a familiar group to reduce their degree of difference. Senior leaders can adopt a positive psychology lens and decide to elevate and affirm differences as strengths or assets instead of requiring individuals to conform to normative or traditional forms of leading that can exclude and disenfranchise entire groups.
- Examine Who is in Your Proximity. By nature, we tend to interact most with those who are in proximity to us. When we diversify leadership at all tiers in an organization, we diversify who is in proximity to employees. Similarly, as a senior leader, diversifying who is in proximity to you can help broaden your worldview, allow you to see and hear new perspectives, and learn about existing realities among your employees that may not have been previously apparent.
Since the mid-1800s there have been major advances and iterations of leadership theory. Individuals have made it their life’s work to understand and improve how we lead, and we are making progress, but there is still much more work to do, and it requires conscious effort.
What is abundantly clear is that senior leaders who dare to lead differently are always learning how to lead more inclusively and equitably. To make strides in our diversity among leaders across government and industry, we need to remember that all people groups bring distinction to leadership that is informed by their diasporic lens and current lived experiences. Bringing the collective experiences of all people to the forefront and allowing others to lead who have historically been regulated to only the opportunity of followership, will help engage your employees, and ultimately strengthen your relationships as well as your business. It’s a win-win for everyone.