Leadership and Diversity

My interest in leadership is both personal and professional. As someone who found himself in a wide range of leadership roles growing up, I have always wanted to understand what exactly was the role of a leader and what made for effectiveness in that role. At a professional level, my interest was sparked by the fact that much of the mainstream theory on leadership that I studied as part of my degrees in psychology had very little to tell me about what I wanted to know. In fact, most of the theories I was presented with were not actually theories of leadership at all. At best, they were theories of management and, at worst, they were theories of control or compliance. They focused on how to get people to do what the leader wanted and often presented a romanticised picture of the heroic manager or chief executive almost single-handedly transforming their organisation. Moreover, psychology, as a whole, had very little to say about any of the burning social or political questions of the day and seemed curiously detached from the lived experience of most people. So, my interest, as it evolved, has been in trying to relate psychology generally, and leadership in particular, to the lived experience and social context of ordinary people and in seeing how psychology can be used as a tool for progressive, pro-human social change and liberation.

What follows here is in two parts. The first outlines a simple but quite profound model of leadership while the second part examines the implications of diversity for this model.

The Role of a Leader
When asked to name what they see as the central role of a leader, people typically point to a range of functions such as inspiring others, pointing a direction, empowering people, offering a vision, making decisions, and so on. In general, the functions they highlight have a particular aspect in common, namely, they tend to be outcomes of one kind or another. This then raises the question of what it is that leaders need to do in order to achieve these outcomes. And one answer to this is that, primarily, leaders need to think. In a very fundamental way, the key role of any leader is to think – about people and the situation facing them.

One of the things that is quite noticeable in the current context of scandals in the political, financial and religious arenas, is the sense, at different times, that no one was able to think very clearly about what was happening. In the middle of crises, there did not seem to be any mind or any intelligence at work. When people cannot tell that anyone is thinking clearly, they get anxious, frustrated, angry and disillusioned. On the other hand, when a crisis occurs and people are confident that someone is able to think reasonably clearly about what is going on, they stay more relaxed, more patient and more hopeful. This ability to think well is one of the fundamental attributes of an effective leader and one that is often overshadowed by the popular focus on the styles of leaders.

In thinking about people and the situation facing them, leaders focus on people both individually and collectively. They also think about not only what is happening for the person or the group and but also what is happening in the wider situation. And, they think about all this over time, taking account of the past, the current situation and how things might evolve or be shaped over the coming period and in the longer term. One of the characteristics of an effective leader is that they have an accurate picture of the present or, as is often said, they have their finger on the pulse (of the person, the group and the wider situation). It has been said that an important role of a leader is to name or define reality and part of what gives people hope is the leader’s ability to accurately describe what is currently taking place. Effective leaders also have a long-term perspective and are able to point a direction that it makes sense to move towards. They do not simply fire-fight or react to events as they occur but operate with a vision of where they want to get to.

When leaders think about people, there are a number of aspects that it is helpful to focus on. An obvious one is the set of strengths that are reflected in this person or this group. What makes this person or this group special? Good leaders are all the time noticing what stands out in a positive way about the people around them. In addition to this, they also notice the potential that is there in this person or this group. Good leaders can see possibilities for development and think about how to support individuals or groups to move forward towards their potential.

Over and above their strengths and potential, however, good leaders also think about where individuals or groups struggle. I deliberately use this term, struggle, as opposed to terms such as shortcomings or weaknesses. Struggle is a useful term because it encourages us to think about things from the perspective of the person or the group rather than approaching them critically from the outside. It encourages us to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the struggle as they experience it and as it interferes with their hopes, their dreams or their potential. As a leader, part of my role is to support people to address their struggles. Quite often, leaders miss seeing the struggle or they see it and simply feel critical of it. Unless they can think about the struggle, they are unlikely to be a useful resource in that situation.

It is also the case that having a clear vision for the future is rooted in an understanding of struggle. Vision is not something plucked out of the air, a formulaic set of high-sounding statements. It speaks to the struggle that people experience, making sense of it and pointing a way forward. It is a picture of how things would look if we got on top of, or overcame, the struggle.

In thinking in these ways, there are certain questions that sum up the approach of a good leader. In one form or other, this leader is all the time asking what is going on here (for this person, this group, in the wider situation), what needs to happen (to address the issues facing the person or the group or the wider world) and what support do people need to move things forward.

If thinking and trying to answer questions such as these are at the heart of leading, then there is a very practical difficulty. That difficulty is that no one person can do all of this on their own. No one person has enough information or is smart enough to figure out all the intricacies of very complex situations. If we are to do this effectively, we have to draw other people into the process. By its nature, effective leadership is a collaborative process. And, central to the collaborative process is listening. The only way we get our thinking clear is to listen to one another.

Listening is not a simple process. Often it is quite messy and requires us to suspend judgment, withhold criticism or comment and think with an open mind about what we are hearing. In practice, the important information that we need in order to understand what is going on is communicated in a variety of ways. Quite often, in trying to make sense of a situation, what we have to pay attention to is how people are feeling. This gets communicated both non-verbally and verbally. Sometimes, when we try to hear what people think, what we get is how bad they are feeling. Some of the most important information of all is communicated at the level of feelings and, if we are to make sense of any situation, we need to be comfortable paying attention to these and even finding ways to draw out the feelings that people are struggling with. Feelings give us vital clues to what is going on and what needs to be addressed.

At times, we will also pick up important insights by listening to the stories or anecdotes that people tell. If we ask them what they think, they may simply tell us what they have experienced over the last while. However, if we listen to these stories and if we listen to different people’s stories, we may well begin to see a pattern in what they are saying. Part of the role of a leader is to listen long enough and widely enough to detect the common elements that make up a picture of where people are struggling.

This kind of listening often occurs outside of formal meetings. For example, it commonly happens informally or spontaneously in the course of short interactions with people. We may find that important information is communicated over a break or over lunch. Sometimes, we may learn important things from asides or throw-away remarks that people make. Occasionally, we hear things while we are working with people on other tasks and chatting as we work. In general, unless we specifically and carefully structure meetings to get at feelings or experiences, we are likely to miss significant contributions to our understanding of any situation.

If we are to listen to people and access the information we need in order to think well about them, then we also need to get in close. An important principle about leadership is that we cannot lead people at a distance. This is reflected in another important leadership principle, namely, that all effective leadership rests on building solid, one-to-one relationships with people. A core part of the work of any leader is the building of relationships. Other activities such as organising meetings, setting up committees, establishing task forces, making speeches, writing, and so on, may be very important but they are no substitute for the building of relationships. Without these close, one-to-one relationships, it is unlikely that our leadership will manage to stay on track.

We can take each of the elements highlighted so far, reverse the order and characterise leadership as a process of building close relationships, within which we listen to people, so that we can think about them. These are not the only important aspects of the leadership process but they are fundamental to it and they have important implications when we come to think about diversity and liberation. (Other aspects, which have not been explored in this context, are the taking of initiative based on listening and thinking, decision making and consensus and the development of new leaders. See Ruth (2006) for a fuller discussion of these).

Diversity and Liberation
In thinking about the places where people struggle in their lives, it is clear that, in practice, many of the important struggles are collective struggles and not just individual ones. When we spend time with a group and get to know them, we can see how the difficulties they face have taken a toll on them not just individually but collectively. Apart from purely personal or individual problems that people face, we can see various ways in which they face common or shared struggles.

If we look closely at these shared struggles, we can see that many of them are closely related to people’s social identities. We do not lead people simply as individuals. We lead them as people with a diverse range of social identities in terms of gender, race, class, age, nationality, religion, sexuality, and so on. In practically every leadership context, we are faced with elements of social diversity. When we think about people, we have to think about their experience as members of these various social groups. These are the context of key struggles facing people and if, as leaders, we are to think clearly about them, then we need to understand the ways in which they are impacted and shaped by their particular social identities and what happens around these in the wider culture in terms of prejudice, misinformation, stereotyping and such like.

More specifically, we need to understand the impact of systematic mistreatment or oppression on people’s lives and how this affects the ways in which they think, feel and act both individually and collectively. Effective leaders understand the dynamics of oppression and, by extension, they understand the dynamics of liberation. They understand how people with particular social identities get mistreated and they understand what the liberation of these groups looks like and entails.

Being able to listen to, and understand, people’s experience of oppression is one hugely important part of this process. As we do this, we also have to understand how their oppression gets internalised. One of the things that is not clearly understood about oppression is that most of the damage is done when it gets internalised and distorts how people think, feel and act. If groups did not internalise oppression, they simply would not allow it to continue. Effective leaders are sensitive to the many ways that internalised oppression manifests itself, whether in terms of poor self-image, divisive relationships, sense of powerlessness, difficulty taking leadership, rigid survival strategies, and so on.

Implications for Leaders
Recognising that social identity is a key component of people’s struggles has particular implications for leaders. If, as leaders, we are to think clearly about people’s social identities and their struggles around these, it helps enormously if we are aware of our own social identities and their effects on us. In particular, for each of us, there are social identities that are more central or salient because of the special ways these have impacted on us and the “baggage” they have left with us. To the extent that we can understand what oppression has done to us and, especially, the painful feelings and rigid patterns of behaviour that it has left with us, the easier it is to understand its effects on others. To the extent that we are able to heal the damage done to us by our oppression and to operate outside the limitations of our internalised oppression, the easier it will be to support others to act powerfully in the face of their oppression.

Some of our salient social identities are oppressed identities and we need to do the work of understanding and healing the ways in which we have been hurt and damaged by what was done to us within these identities. However, it is also the case that some of our salient identities are oppressor identities. It is equally important to know what effects the latter have had on us and, especially, the particular feelings they have left with us. If the building of relationships is central to the leadership process, it helps to be aware of any oppressor identities that we carry and the baggage attached to these that we bring into those relationships. As a member of an oppressor group, it can be difficult to be an effective ally for an oppressed group, if I unawarely carry, and act out, oppressive feelings and behaviour as a result of the conditioning I received. Intellectually, I can be opposed to oppression while still feeling prejudiced and behaving in an oppressive manner. Becoming aware of my own oppressor feelings and patterns of behaviour is central to being an effective leader. As a white person, for example, it is not possible to grow up in a European or North American culture and not be saturated in racism. This has nothing to do with the goodness of white people. They are not born racist and are not inherently racist. This is simply to acknowledge that racism pervades cultures like these and no white person will escape that kind of conditioning, even with the best will in the world. Similarly, it is not possible to grow up male in cultures like this and not be saturated in sexism. This is not because men are inherently sexist or oppressive but simply that the prejudice towards women and oppressive structures are all around us and no man escapes their influence.

One challenge for a member of any oppressor group is to notice the ways in which they have internalised the prejudices and oppressive behaviour that are part of the conditioning of their group. A second challenge is to do the work to free themselves from those prejudices and that oppressive behaviour. We do this for a number of reasons. One is so that we can think more clearly about the people around us and be an effective resource for them. A second is because our own lives are deeply degraded by the separation from, and lack of contact and human connection with, people who are different from us. We don’t do this work out of guilt but simply because it makes complete sense to eliminate any oppressive behaviour that damages both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is in relation to this that the quotation attributed to Lilla Watson and the collective of which she was a part is especially relevant. They said, “if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.

One very useful attitude for a leader to adopt is to assume that, in relation to another group’s experience of oppression, I just “don’t get it”. It is useful to adopt an attitude of humility that assumes that, if I have not experienced that particular oppression from the inside, then I can never fully appreciate its effects. This does not mean that I cannot achieve a very deep understanding of that oppression, but that, ultimately, the experts with the clearest thinking are going to come from within that group not from the outside. We are not going to solve pressing social problems if those who are oppressed are not at the centre of those efforts. As an ally, part of my role is to listen and learn. This is in contrast to the common occurrence of members of oppressor groups trying to do the thinking for oppressed groups and pronouncing on what is appropriate or desirable for these groups without fully listening to, or engaging with, them in a collaborative process.

As a leader and ally, then, thinking well also means thinking about how to develop minority leadership. And it means thinking about how to get behind and back that leadership. Dominant or oppressor groups are often more comfortable operating with their hands on the levers of power. We are reluctant to hand over power unless we know how people will use it or we can control what they do with it. In practice, it often feels uncomfortable to back minority leadership rather than hold on to that leadership ourselves. It never feels like the time is right to hand over power. The challenge for me, as a white person, for example, or as a man, is to get behind the leadership of people of colour or women and to face all the feelings that doing this will bring up rather than letting those feelings undermine or distort the quality of the support I offer.

Most complex social situations that we face involve a diverse range of social identities. The more we can build on that diversity, tap the thinking of the widest range of people and draw diverse social groups into the centre of the leadership process, the more likely we are to invent creative and workable solutions to the challenges facing us. This is the essence of good leadership.

Dr Seán Ruth

6 October 2012

Permission to reprint this article is granted on an individual basis. Please contact to request permission. We reserve the right to refuse or rescind permission at any time.