Understanding and leading diversity is complex and demanding territory for leaders everywhere. It also is territory, which in a global economy, is simply unavoidable. In the face of relentless diversity care needs to be taken that leaders avoid the temptation of looking for an easy or simplistic formula. An ‘ABC’ to leveraging diversity where all you have to do is ‘add water’ and in an instant you have the solution!
Here is what I am learning about diversity and hopefully these ongoing lessons will provide you with some of the signposts that will assist you in your own unique yet shared journey.

Dealing with diversity is not optional.
There is perhaps no better place than South Africa to help us understand this reality. Though to think that as South Africans we have the corner on this market would be an illusion smeared with ignorance. The Asia Pacific region, to name but one, is a cauldron of diversity. This has become increasing apparent to me as we in TomorrowToday.biz have done work with the East-West Center located in Honolulu. The programme in which we have worked brings leaders from throughout the Asia Pacific region together and amongst the approximately 50 participants, there can be as many as 30 countries represented. Ever tried to facilitate a workshop on self-awareness where you have some Bhutanese monks as participants! Needless to say it is a challenge and is an environment where the learning is mutual.
Squaring up to the challenges posed by diversity is unavoidable for leaders. Accepting this reality is perhaps the first step in the journey to understanding and leading diversity.
Diversity will challenge your own lenses through which you view the world
We all have lenses through which we make sense of the world around us. For the most part these lenses remain hidden from our own view and the quest for emotional intelligence is in part developing an awareness of the lenses through which we view the world. Understanding how ‘who I am’ impacts on my view of ‘reality’ is a life-time pursuit. It requires the imprinting and mastery of both reflective habits and practical skills in order to leverage personal growth from an awareness of my own unique lenses. There are multiple ‘lenses’ including those of race, gender, age and experience that come into play. Having some of these lenses challenged can be uncomfortable if not painful but is an essential bridge to authentic self-development. The frightening thing is how deeply embedded some of our lenses are and bringing them to the surface can take time (process), honesty (information / feedback) and a willingness to be vulnerable. In the content driven world in which we live, giving time to process and outcomes often takes intentional effort and activity. Savvy leaders understand this and they pay more attention to process and outcomes than they do to content. Unfortunately this lesson is one that remains obscured in the blind spot ofmany Business Schools and leadership formation programmes I have encountered. Ironically such institutions are in desperate need to have their own lenses challenges in this regard. This will become an increasing challenge to institutions which focus primarily on an academic, content driven agenda and curriculum. Paradoxically the worldwide focus on leadership development has never been greater and yet we have a dearth of genuineleadership in so many of the coporates worldwide.
Diversity is the yellow brink road to innovation.
The old (Boomer) approach to innovation found expression in coherent teams that were well aligned. Being on the same page sums up this approach and the thinking was that as we then work together we can focus on being innovative and think out the box. The reality is that this no longer works. The ability to innovate, truly innovate, is dependant on the ability to harness and leverage diversity. This makes for interesting ‘team dynamics’ and requires no small amount of dexterity within both the corporate culture and environment. It isalso something that requires leadership as in many instances the gravitational pull is towards homogeneous safety and comfort. A willingness to embrace diversity will inevitably lead to new ways to see and do things. If it doesn’t,then the chances are that it was not a ‘willingness to embrace’ that was the primary driver, but rather a desire to dominate, that led the diversity process.There are times when the domination driver does a good job at masquerading as a desire to embrace diversity. Somehow the outcomes will always reveal the authenticity of the process and one of the outcomes will inevitably be that of innovation.
Understanding diversity is to tell our story
We all frame our reality through stories. Stories will become a dominant theme within leadership and corporate life in the unfolding Connection economy. Dealing with diversity in an intellectual, conceptual way can lead to much talk but little conversation. Talk that doesn’t build relationship serves little purpose. The best way to begin to understand diversity is through the willingness to both share and listen to our individual and collective stories. This is too big a theme to unpack in the context of this article but the need for leaders to understand the power of stories and engage withthis new territory is compelling. Sharing our story with attentive listeners is a powerful way to begin to understand our own lenses and nurtures an understanding an appreciation for the things that bind as well asthe things that keep us apart. I remember someone recalling the story of a conversation she had had with a good friend. The friend had said to her (intending it as a complement) “when I see you I don’t see colour” (obviously this was a cross-cultural friendship). The Storyteller had then replied, “…well then you don’t see me”. The first step to understanding diversity is the recognition that we are different. Telling our story paradoxically highlights this important stepping stone as it does the extent to which we share our ‘sameness’. Stories are the means by which we find our way in the maze that is diversity. Leaders will need to become Storytellers and ‘Wayfinders’ in the Connection economy, an economy where the new navigation skills and instruments will need to be discovered.
Kindergarten offers lessons in diversity
Leaders need to be learners. Where is it that leaders can learn about diversity? Certainly one option is the kindergarten. Young children often are immune to the things that we as adults use to categorize, label, divide and ‘put in a box’. Of course, sadly so, they learn these categories soon enough. However, for a time at least they are not prone to stereotypical judgments and remain disarmingly open to those around them. In Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids (Penguin) I explore the magical world of kids and all that we can learn from them when it come to leadership. I won’t repeat some of those lessons here (buy the book!) other than to say that we need to explore fresh ways for those in leadership to understand diversity. The theoretical and conceptual models on the subject have a place but so too does learning what it is all about from unlikely sources whatever those might be. When it comes to diversity we need to be ‘educated’ and as Skinner has said, “education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten”.Unlearning needs to precede learning and leaders need to place themselves squarely in the path of experiences from which they will receive an education. Knowing in advance what these areis not always possible and a willingness to try new things, explore and embark on open ended paths is what it will take. Scared? You should be! I know I often am.
According to Stanford psychologist Claude Steele there are several factors that can leverage diversity. These include optimistic leaders, genuine challenge, an emphasis on learning, affirming the sense of belonging and an appreciation for different values and perspectives. Clearly there is much for leaders everywhere to think about and work on. What is clear is that the world we once knew, a world where the impact of diversity was minimal, is no more. This is not a new message but leaders need to adapt to this changed reality. No longer does the old dance work, a new dance is required. Diversity offers some wonderful opportunities to those individuals and companies intent on growth. Diversity is not limited to a north-south axis but needs to incorporate an east-west perspective. It is not only external, ‘an out there’ type of focus but needs to incorporate an internal, an ‘in here’ element. It is the interplay between ‘them’ and ‘us’ whoever them and us may be. It is an open ended invitation…an exploration to which leaders everywhere are invited. It is an invitation leaders dare not ignore: “I’m too busy” simply isn’t good enough.
May the education continue…

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