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Diversity and Inclusion in the NFL?

December 5, 2014

[This is part 1 of a 4-part series on developing and improving your inclusive leadership skills.—Ed.]

By Charley Morrow

The NFL has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. But, after a conversation I had with a colleague recently, I’ve also come to realize that a successful football team is a perfect illustration of the positive impact a diverse workforce and an inclusive leader can have on an organization. Let me explain:

First of all, it’s important to remember that diversity and inclusion are usually mentioned together, but they are in fact very different things. “Diversity” simply refers to the makeup of an organization’s workforce (both in the C-suite and overall) that are defined by factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and age, etc.

“Inclusion” refers to how well an organization (which really means all levels of leadership) engages everyone to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.

How “inclusive” an organization is depends on how “inclusive” its leaders are. The data shows that the most successful organizations have inclusive leaders who make the best use of a diverse workforce. The data also shows that all inclusive leaders share four important traits:

1. They are results oriented.

2. They are open.

3. They equip others for success.

4. They provide a sense of security for people to openly work and collaborate.

The good news is that everyone can develop these essential inclusive leadership skills.

Focusing on results orientation, this really refers to getting everyone oriented and working hard to achieve the goals. It also means getting everyone to contribute in their own unique way using their own talents. But what does any of this have to do with the NFL?

Everything. Can you think of more results-oriented people than NFL players, coaches, and executives? Of course, a “win at all costs” mentality is no doubt contributing to the NFL’s problems, but ironically, our hypothetical results-oriented football team is also the perfect example of the power of diversity and inclusive leadership.

This is because all football teams are made up of a diverse workforce—enormous linemen, fast receivers, and even skinny kickers—and they all need to work together to be successful. The leaders (coaches, front-office personnel and even the on-field captains) who forge the most cohesive “teams” of these very different people win. Recognizing the obvious fact that each individual has a unique talent to offer—being big enough to block, being fast enough to get open, or having the mysterious skill of a kicker—and that the team needs each unique talent to be successful is what being an inclusive, results-oriented leader is all about. NFL football teams are not being “inclusive” in this way because it’s politically correct. They’re inherently diverse and inclusive because they have to be. It’s the only way to win.

You may not have 350-pound linemen preventing you from getting sacked, but chances are, you do have a diverse team of individuals with unique talents who need the right kind of leadership to make an impact. The question every leader should ask themselves is this: “Am I fully leveraging everyone’s talents by encouraging them to contribute fully and in partnership with others to win?” If you are not recognizing the value of each individual’s uniqueness the answer is probably “no.” Leaders should say and think “we need people like you” as well as “we need to focus on winning.”

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