Posted by Keith Coats, Co-Founder of TomorrowToday South Africa
Diversity
Posted on February 5th, 2013 at 11:23 am

Leading Diversity: the work leaders cannot ignore

One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is that of leading diversity. It is also something that leaders cannot ignore, avoid or neglect – although many do.

Diversity is a well-worn term and is often confused with variety. In fact understanding the distinction between diversity and variety is fundamental to the approach one adopts. The best picture I can provide of this distinction comes from Dr. Peter Hershock, Coordinator of the Asian Studies Development Program at the East West Center in Hawaii. Peter is a quite brilliant thinker and I have been privileged to hear him lecture on a number of occasions. He likens variety to a zoo: a system that relies on external input and one that is carefully managed and contains limited interaction. Diversity he says is like a rainforest: systems within systems that are both cooperative and competitive. It is a system that evolves towards equilibrium and where disruption is welcomed as a catalyst for growth and evolution. Peter delves deeper into this analogy to good effect but suffice to say that it provides a helpful picture to understand the difference between variety and diversity. Why this is important is that in my experience, most companies deal with diversity as though it were variety and therein sits a fundamental flaw in the approach to leading diversity.

The benefits of harnessing diversity are immense. Innovation, greater team participation, resilience and the means to better understand and enter new markets are the obvious ones. However, if these benefits are to be realised then diversity has to be led in such a way that they are able to flourish. This is easier said than done. In her excellent book unleashing leaders, Hilarie Owen writes, “Diversity should be regarded as a positive. Too many organizations say they support diversity but in reality they want compliance. Diversity here means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations”.

As I write this I am in transit to Buenos Aires to facilitate and teach on ‘Leading Diversity’ as part of a major international business school’s programme for an international pharmaceutical company. TomorrowToday has the responsibility of shaping the day on leading diversity in this programme that is held in Singapore, Russia and Argentina. As I fulfill this responsibility I am again reminded just what an inside track South Africans have when it comes to this topic. South Africa is, according to the United Nations index, the most diverse country on the planet (South East Asia is the most diverse region) and as such, South Africa knows a thing or two about the subject. Of course the mere presence of such diversity is no guarantee that the benefits will be harvested, it will still require skillful and mature leadership but having such diversity certainly provides a good head start!

Leaders need to understand that leading diversity is part of the contemporary leadership terrain. As a leader you need to pay attention to the mindset and skillset required to lead diversity in your organisation and then be intentional about ensuring these are cultivated throughout your ranks. Leading diversity is built on an awareness of the lenses through which you view the world and the impact these lenses have on your attitudes and behavior. Leading diversity requires both head and heart and there can be no better way to undertake this dual work than through an appreciation of story. Story connects both head and heart and so story offers a helpful pathway into a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, diversity. Leading diversity will also require ‘seeing the invisible’ – paying careful attention to those we tend not to notice, those we don’t ‘see’. As we begin to see the ‘invisible’ we open ourselves up to the possibility of diversity and all it offers.

Leaders have to understand the need to move from being different ‘from each other’ to being different ‘for each other’. This is the journey that diversity invites if you are serious about leading diversity within your organisation.

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