by Stephen Scott
1 November, 2021
As a leader, you must understand the distinct difference between feeling different and feeling like you belong to a diverse group. One breaks down trust and the other builds it.
So long as the environment you create as a leader is safe, the most important thing you can bring to any team is competence. Ultimately, within the context of an organisation – a team with a specific, shared goal – being good at the thing you’re supposed to be good at is the most important part you can play.
As such, a productive leader will preference the right person for the job above all else. That person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, age or anything else shouldn’t matter when it comes to their position on the team. This, frankly, is easier said than done.
I truly believe that the vast majority of leaders set out to fill their teams in the most equitable, inclusive way possible. While I’m sure there are many people who do purposely exclude people because of misguided, conscious prejudices, I don’t think those people are the majority. Instead, I believe the more common problem is people who fully believe they are doing the right thing, but fail to notice (by definition) their unconscious biases. I believe it’s especially common for heterosexual white men to fall into this trap more often than anyone else because we are so much less likely to have experienced such prejudice from the other side. This problem is pernicious, and complicated, and ongoing: I think it’s safe to say that things are improving, but equally things are not improving nearly fast enough.
So, while it’s admirable and necessary to espouse the importance of focusing on competence above all else, it’s clear that we have a long, long way to go.
However, something that concerns me more and more with each passing year is the approach that so many people seem to be gravitating towards in this pursuit of equality. While the underlying aim is to prevent marginalised groups of people from losing out on opportunities based on prejudice, the specific actions taken and words used to reach this goal have become increasingly divisive and aggressive.
At the very core of this movement is a belief in the fundamental equality of human beings: to fight injustice and inequality is to assert your belief that all human beings deserve the same basic level of respect, dignity and opportunity. This pursuit, then, is ultimately a goal chased in the name of unity. It is about recognising and celebrating what makes us the same, what brings us together, so that we can develop a richer, deeper understanding of and appreciation for the multitude of things that make us unique.
However, the broader cultural climate today seems to operate instead from a foundation of separation, of division. While the deeper goal is supposed to be to defend people who are being mistreated, the surface-level behaviour often manifests instead as an attack. Instead of coming together to educate one another, or to listen to the stories of people who are marginalised, there are so many cases of people whose main objective is to “catch” people or organisations out, and to publicly shame them for their shortcomings.
Again, I understand, at least to some degree, where this is coming from. This is not a purely philosophical discussion – this is not a hypothetical scenario. This is a problem facing the real world, in which real people’s lives are dramatically affected by the outcomes. Likewise, it’s not a discussion about an impossible utopia, where we’re idly wondering what the perfect, impossible best case would be; it’s often about protecting people from immediate, physical danger or from a lifetime of being passed over for opportunities. There are very real, very powerful things at stake in this arena, and that makes people emotional.
While I understand the emotions – the frustrations, the anger – I still believe they often lead to unproductive outcomes. One of the reasons my framework for life is called The 15 Disciplines and not The 15 Rules is because of the implication in the word discipline: it reminds me that the onus is on me to be disciplined, and that therefore I will often be up against my own default behaviours. This is that kind of situation.
In a way, it’s incredibly satisfying to get angry, especially in the name of a righteous cause. It can make us feel alive and even powerful. But it is often just that: a feeling. A sensation. These feelings can guide you, and they can assure you that you’re on the right path, but they are not usually very helpful when it comes to your interactions with the rest of the world – especially in matters as complex as these.
Your anger might remind you why you choose to fight for justice, but when it causes you to divide people in order to make a point, or to vilify a particular person or organisation for your personal gratification, you’re not changing the game: you’re just moving the pieces around and playing it from a different position.
The other side of the issue is at least less immediately destructive, but equally worrying because it is so unassuming. The thing about diversity is to not make a thing about diversity.
When we rush to praise someone’s achievements because they are the first woman to do something, or the first gay person to do something, the implication is that it’s only so impressive because of their particular characteristics, and that the achievement wouldn’t matter as much if it were achieved by someone else. While I believe in celebrating progress, and I absolutely recognise that in many cases simply getting to the starting line is much harder for certain people in certain contexts, I think our society has a tendency to lean too hard in this direction. It disheartens me when people are celebrated not simply for their achievements but their achievements in spite of… Although it’s usually not on purpose, we are diminishing this person’s achievements and adding to the historical baggage that sometimes already hangs over their sense of identity (or the broader public’s sense of that person’s identity).
More than anything, it saddens me that we even feel the need to do this: I really don’t believe it comes from a place of attention-seeking or entitlement. I think it comes from a genuine understanding that the world is not as fair a place as it should be. However, this is again where discipline comes in. Just as it’s gratifying to revel in anger, it can be perversely satisfying to wallow in sadness and despair, even when it changes nothing. I am terribly saddened that some people are not afforded the same opportunities that I am because of something like their race or gender. But I cannot help if I do not put at least some of that emotion to the side in order to think and behave rationally in pursuit of a workable solution.
I don’t say all of this because I think I’ve figured something out – I’m sure everyone recognises that the fight for equality is a complicated one. Instead, I hope this serves as a reminder to be disciplined and to act instead of simply feeling. Feeling disheartened by injustice is natural, but the only productive next step is to take the next step.
As a leader, you can set an example. You can make the conscious, continuous effort to choose people who are right for your team and right for the job, and then reward people based on their achievements. You can focus on what unites your team, rather than what separates you. Belonging to a diverse team is about accepting and celebrating what makes you different from one another while also celebrating what makes you the same – whether that be your shared goal, or something as deep-seated as your shared humanity.
You cannot not influence, and so your behaviour and your decisions will always set an example: have the discipline to make it the right example, and focus not on what divides us, but instead on generating unity.