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The Diversity Leadership Imperative
by Al Vivian


The Need to Progress from Diversity Management to Diversity Leadership Competency

I will start with two basic points that everyone can logically agree with: 1.) Every organization needs quality leadership to be successful in a highly competitive world, and 2.) Diversity is a reality that is here to stay, and its impact is increasing exponentially as our demographics continue to change. Further, diversity’s impact will broaden via globalization as the world continues to shrink and flatten. As a result, there is an automatic interconnectedness between leadership and diversity, yet this relationship between the two has not been adequately and accurately explored. This leads me to my third point, which some may debate. 3.) In order to truly maximize the effectiveness and potential of ourselves and our organizations we must develop some solid diversity leadership competencies. This is true for all of us, regardless of our cultural background; because you cannot maximize your effective as a leader in an extremely diverse society without understanding diversity. In short, you cannot lead what you do not understand. Some may debate this by saying “… America has always had diversity within its ranks and we’ve consistently been the leaders of the free world.” That is true, however what’s different now is that global competition is far fiercer; and our society is far more diverse than ever before. Additionally, the teachings and philosophies of every great leadership expert from Sun Tzu to Stephen Covey will confirm that the lion’s share of leadership is motivation; and every major study on culture has proven that different cultural groups are motivated by different things.

Management –v- Leadership

If you were to compile a list of the traits and skills that you most admire about great leaders like -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Tony Blair, Mary McCloud-Bethune, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Margret Thatcher, and others; odds are you would list things like moral courage, their ability to inspire; their mastery of language; how they helped ordinary people tap into their greatness, etc…. Your list would not include the statement, “They were great managers”. Chances are they all are/were; but in the end nobody cares. We don’t follow other people because of their management skills. We follow them because of how they make us feel.

The masses remember great people not because of their ability to manage; but because of their ability to LEAD! The reality is that people don’t want to be managed; they want to be led. They want to be inspired. They want to follow people that they connect with. The 21st century leader MUST have the adequate competencies to connect and build trust in an authentic way with people across a huge myriad of cultures and ideologies.

Diversity Management –v- Diversity Leadership

Management by nature deals with rules and policies. And let’s face it, that’s the easy part. Anyone can create a rule or write a policy statement. Leadership, on the other hand, deals with changing hearts and minds, and holding people accountable. This is a far more daunting and challenging task.

The unfortunate and regrettable truth is that we as a society have treated diversity like it is an inanimate “thing”; an object to be managed. But it’s not. It is a collection of people; living, breathing folks with minds and emotions. For the past 20 years or so, organizations have focused a lot of energy on diversity management, and understandably so. To their credit, these efforts have helped many organizations move past just counting heads, dealing only with representation. Some of these organizations are now re-directing a portion of their energy towards creating an inclusive environment that supports diversity. The point that I am attempting to make is that the diversity management approach is not incorrect; but it is incomplete. Managers tend to look toward the most expedient (and often temporary) fix; while leaders are more apt to look down the horizon for the actual long range resolution to the problem. This type of leadership is woefully missing as it relates to building fully inclusive environments that not only allow all types of people to flourish and maximize their abilities; but encourages, grooms and develops them to do so.

Many feel that leaders have failed to aggressively take the lead on diversity out of a lack of desire. However, I on the contrary think this failure to lead on diversity has less to do with deficient desire, and more to do with fear. Fear of making a mistake and being negatively “labeled”. The good news is that this fear can be eroded when leaders are equipped with some diversity leadership competencies that will build both their knowledge and confidence.

Trends That Make Diversity Leadership Competencies an Imperative

Developing these competencies is no longer a forward thinking innovation. We are actually running out of time. There are a large number of demographic and economic trends making the need to act an imperative. Among them:

Labor Shortage -- As Baby-Boomers retire America faces decades of talent shortages. A report by Development Dimensions International, as reported in a recent article, The New War for Talent by Michael Gregoire, “one-fifth of this country’s large, established companies will be losing 40 percent or more of their top talent in the next five years.” Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics further predicts a 10 million personnel shortfall starting around 2008-2010.

Global Migration Patterns – As a result of the aforementioned talent shortage the U.S. will need to increase its immigration numbers which will further increase our diversity, in the areas of race, culture and religion.

Generational Issues – We will continue to have four distinctly different generations working side by side in our workforce. The tensions that exist may intensify. Due to our increasingly challenged economy, some older workers who had intended to retire will be forced to stay in the workplace for financial reasons. Simultaneously, many talented, impatient, “up and coming” Generation X’ers may start to feel some resentment toward these more matured workers who are now impeding their progress be refusing to leave these jobs that the Generation X’ers want; thus creating what is known as “generational conflict”.

A Few Required Competencies

In her book, Managing Diversity: Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace, Michalle E. Mor Barak talks about how ancient Chinese tradition divides people into categories based on four qualities: Shi (scholars), Nong (farmers), Gong (artisans) and Shang (merchants). The belief is that to be a fully effective leader, one must acquire the “…vision and ethics of the scholar, the appreciation and respect for basic human needs of the farmer, the creativity and drive for excellence of the artisan, and the ambition of the merchant (in order) to make a profit.” The concept to grasp here is that cultural competency is not about learning every little nuance about every cultural group. It’s more about learning the perspectives and big picture concepts that relate to various cultures. In short, diversity leadership competency is not focused on learning a long list of cultural “do’s and don’ts”. It is about establishing common ground with people from cultures other than your own by developing some simple tools. Some examples of these competencies are:

· Being aware of your own biases

· Developing cultural dexterity

· Challenging false assumptions

· Exercising moral courage

· Embodying trust and fairness

· Being consistent

Most of these competencies are not complicated or difficult to learn; and they tend to line up with our already accepted moral codes, and organizational values. All we have to do is put forth an effort until they become second nature.

In the words of leadership guru Warren Bennis, “Managers are people who do things right. Leaders are people who do the right thing.” Take the lead, step up and do the right thing. Everyone will benefit; yourself included.


About The Author

DSC02791-2Al Vivian is the President and CEO of Basic Diversity, Inc. (BASIC). BASIC is a full service cultural diversity training and consulting firm that has been operating nationally for 35 years. Their client list includes CNN, Coca Cola, DuPont, Ford Motor Company, McDonalds, N.C. State University, The National Security Agency, U.S. Army and various municipalities. Al has provided diversity counsel to civic and religious leaders, political officials, and television news personnel. He has provided diversity commentary to various media outlets including CNN, FOX, NBC, PBS, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Chicago Sun Times, and WSB News Radio. Vivian learned about managing diversity very early in life via personal interactions with members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s staff (Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Cotton …etc.). Vivian later honed his skills as an Officer in the United States Army, where he held numerous executive positions, including Equal Opportunity Officer, and rose to the rank of Captain before leaving in 1991 to lead the team at Basic Diversity. The Human Resources veteran is a member of the American Society for Training & Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Al’s military awards include the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Parachute Badge. Al has previously served as a mentor in Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, and is a Deacon at Faith Christian Center in Smyrna, GA. Al is an Advisor to the U.S. Army for Diversity & Culture. He also sits on the boards of The U.S. Fund for UNICEF (SW Chapter), Landmark Christian School, and The C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute.

Basic Diversity, Inc. is best known for their “Race Awareness Workshop” which has been evaluated as the most effective race relations seminar in the nation, boasting an 86%-94% effectiveness rating.