I was recently asked to write an article for the Switch and Shift leadership blog. I picked up a theme that has been a significant one for our team for many years. It is one that our new business partner, Prof. Nick Barker has most of his professional career working with. It is the topic of cultural complexity, diversity and difference. The topic is a vital one for all larger businesses these days, as we deal with the increasingly complex interactions between people of different worldviews, cultures, personalities, generations, genders and all the other factors that cause us to see the world differently to others.

One of the most significant leadership issues in the 21st century is going to be the issue of diversity. This is because it’s not just about ensuring the requisite numbers of women and ethnic minorities at various levels within your organisation.; It’s about engaging with difference, and using that engagement to enhance your business success.

But this can only happen if we have a significant change in mindset.

Put simply: the goal of diversity is not harmony. And this is the problem: Most leaders approach the issue of diversity with a checklist in one hand (to make sure they’ve covered all the ‘diversity factors’ they’re being measured on) and a hope of maintaining harmony in the other. They see the management of diversity as the “taming of difference”.

The result is that you end up with something that looks and feels a bit like a zoo does: all the different species are there, neatly and carefully labeled, but they’re all locked up, artificially caged, and the visitors are not allowed to feed them. Zoos have their place, of course, and a lot of good work goes on in the world’s zoos. But they are not reality. They’re sterile places. And they are not self-sustaining.

In the DreamWorks animated movie, “Madagascar”, four animals who have spent their whole lives in the New York zoo are unwittingly shipped out to Africa and dropped into the wilds of Madagascar. Initially they are thrilled. But then they encounter the reality of the natural environment. Set to Louis Armstrong’s haunting song, “What a Wonderful World”, the animals from the zoo discover that the freedom of nature can be quite brutal, with an entire ecosystem built on creative destruction and an interconnected web that is the “circle of life” (to borrow from another Disney animated movie that highlights similar themes). Watch this moment from the movie:

And in that movie montage moment is the heart of the matter for 21st century leaders. Diversity offers much, but it requires a lot too. It’s not a perfect analogy, this “zoo vs wild” theme, but it’s designed to get you thinking rather than provide a framework for implementation. The zoo and the wild both achieve the same goal: to have a broad range of animals living in close proximity to each other, and producing outcomes in their environments. The zoo does this by containing, constricting and controlling the way in which the animals live and ‘work’. The wild allows them more freedom to be themselves, to interact with others in a less structured way, and to find their ‘natural’ ways of living and ‘working’.

If we get diversity right, what we will succeed in doing is creating work environments that are more like wild ecosystems than zoos. The benefits of true diversity would therefore include:

  • Resilience – the more diverse an environment, the more resilient it is when change occurs and difficulty strikes. This is true in nature, and it is true in communities too.
  • Understanding – in an ecosystem, it is vital to understand the different components and who does what (and to whom). True diversity will ensure that the full scope of your client base is understood within your company, regardless of how large or multinational or company is.
  • Morale – your people will feel more comfortable and confident ‘being themselves’, and will be encouraged to discover and contribute their best selves. This will be energising and fulfilling for them. This, by the way, is the primary message of the “strengths based” approach to people development, best represented by the work of Markus Buckingham.

  • Collaboration – people will feel more confident in working with many other people, even (and especially) those they don’t agree with or don’t initially ‘click’ with
  • Creativity and innovation – it is only when we allow different people the space to see and experience the world in different ways that we can only really achieve innovative thinking. I firmly believe that the reason most companies never really achieve innovation is that they’ve never really embraced difference.

There are also benefits in product development, marketing, reduced staffing issues and much more. In fact, there will be benefits just about anywhere in a company where people and opinions make an impact on business performance. All of this is both well attested in business research and common sense if one thinks about it.

What then is the task of leadership?

Leaders need to firstly change their mindset about diversity. The goal is to build a flourishing, self-sustaining ecosystem, in which there is a natural, but sometimes scary and robust interaction of worldviews, attitudes, approaches, cultures and convictions. Leaders need to embrace this slightly chaotic environment, not attempting to tame or control it, but rather to immerse themselves in it and become guides to lead others through it.

This means, secondly, that leaders need to model a behaviour that is suited for the wild, not the zoo. In a zoo, the goal is to cage and tame the scary animals. In the wild, you want them to run free. You want them to be who they are best meant to be.  And you want everyone else to understand them, respect them, trust them and connect with them in the most appropriate way.

Dignity, trust, respect: these are not just words on a meaningless list of values handed down from head office. They are the heart of leadership in the 21st century ecosystem – and they are instilled best when they are instilled by example.

Thirdly, leaders need to promote diversity as a tool, not a goal in itself. Diversity is only a means to an end. The purpose of a zoo is to showcase animals. But the purpose of the wild is to live, to grow, to flourish together. That should be the goal of diversity.

And that should be what 21st century leaders aim to achieve by creating – and sustaining – groups and teams that evidence – and celebrate – real differences.

Dr Graeme Codrington is an author, presenter and board advisor on the future world of work. He is co-founder and international partner of TomorrowToday, a business strategy consultancy. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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