Leadership, Diversity and the Power of Paradox

Part of me wants to wrestle the term “diversity” away from all the diversity practitioners in organizations.

Don’t get me wrong—I think diversity practitioners are great. I’m one of them, in fact. We’re doing good work, for really good reasons, and we’re getting results. But over the years we’ve ended up enmeshed in HR, and training, and compliance, and protecting people from lawsuits…to the point where sometimes I think we might have lost sight of what diversity is all about.

Diversity Means Difference

That’s it. It’s the ways in which we are different from each other. And diversity’s sister term—inclusion—also tends to be similarly over complicated in organizations these days. Inclusion simply means the capacity to include difference (these beautifully simple definitions, by the way, come from Joe Gerstandt).

21st century leaders need to reconnect to these basic definitions, because in today’s environment, we need diversity and inclusion more than ever. Why? Because they are at the heart of innovation. You can’t have innovation without difference. Frans Johannson demonstrated this eloquently in his book, The Medici Effect, several years ago. We need people who are different to be working together in order to generate successful innovation. It’s at the “intersection” of thinking from people who come from different points of view where innovation is born.

One of the important jobs of leaders today is to help create cultures that do inclusion well.

So one of the important jobs of leaders today is to help create cultures that do inclusion well. And to be honest, this is not our strong suit. We’re good at similarities. We hire people who remind us of…us. We’re good at putting people together in departments who all think the same way and have the same background. We love consistency and sameness. It’s orderly and controlled.

Then we turn around and say how committed we are to innovation, without recognizing that our culture—which values sameness and consistency—is constantly working against innovation. So how do you create a culture that is good at inclusion?

Today’s leaders need to be okay with contradictions

You start by geting comfortable with paradox. Today’s leaders need to be okay with contradictions and not be stopped by them. I see this all the time in cultures that really value inclusion and walk the walk of diversity. In Humanize, we identified three paradoxes that provide a foundation for those cultures:

Proud Humility

The marketing department has to be confident in its expertise and insight, but also be willing to acknowledge that it can be a huge pain in the ass to the rest of us sometimes. That’s proud humility: powerful, but not walking over everyone.

Aggressive Sensitivity

When sensitivity turns into fear of upsetting anyone, we’ve all lost. We need to push each other, even offend sometimes, but stay committed to resolving conflict when it happens. That way we all learn and grow while still respecting each other. If you think the marketing department is off its rocker, you need to tell them and stay in the conversation until you’ve worked it out.

When sensitivity turns into fear of upsetting anyone, we’ve all lost.

Dynamic Stability

Inclusive cultures understand how to compose a consistent narrative about who they are and where they are going, despite implementing nearly continuous change. In companies like this, you won’t hear departments use “but that’s how we’ve always done it” as an objection.

There’s more to creating a culture of inclusion than embracing paradoxes like these, but it’s a good start – and a critical skill for 21st century leadership.


Continue our New Leadership series with Millennial Leaders: Perfecting the Leadership Art Form

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

  • http://twitter.com/BenSimonton Ben Simonton

    Aggressive Sensitivity? Isn’t that exactly what diversity efforts have created? Isn’t command and control the real problem and diversity training just one more attempt to put lipstick on the pig? Whatever happened to treating everyone with respect rather than as bad people who need to be controlled by management and its one-size fits all bureaucrats in HR et al?

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  • http://twitter.com/MaaHoda Hoda Maalouf

    Great Post Jamie!
    Can we create a beautiful painting with one simple color? Or create music with one single note? Definitely not!
    Eating the same food again& again would lead to nutrient deficiency. Similarly, meeting & talking & working with like minded people would lead to deficiency in challenges & creativity.
    A working environment that mixes people with different background, interests and skills is a challenging & exciting environment that keeps everyone on the creative edge.


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