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The Diversity Leadership Imperative (Part 1) by Al Vivian

January 16, 2012

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. Furthermore, 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 relation between the two has not been adequately and accurately explored.

This leads me to my third point, which some may debate.  In order to truly maximize the effectiveness and potential of our organizations and ourselves, we must develop some solid diversity leadership competencies. This is true for all, regardless of our cultural background, because leadership effectiveness cannot be maximized in a tremendously 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.” This 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 versus 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 great managers; 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 with whom they can connect. 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 versus 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 making 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 also 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 that 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 “labeled”. The good news is that this fear can be replaced with diversity leadership competencies that will build leaders’ knowledge and confidence.

Visit here tomorrow for part two of The Diversity Leadership Imperative, where Al concludes with trends that make diversity leadership competencies an imperative.


About The Author

Al Vivian is the President and CEO of BASIC Diversity, Inc. (BASIC). Al’s specialty is Inclusive Leadership — teaching senior leaders the requisite skills and competencies to effectively lead across cultures. He 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, and his father Dr. C.T. Vivian). Al later honed his leadership 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. 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. His client list includes Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Co. and The U.S. Army.


This article was originally published in the February 2008 edition of The Linkage Leader.

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