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One of my favorite ways of looking at leadership diversity comes from a landmark study by the Center for Talent Innovation. It defined the topic along two lines. One was “inherent” diversity, which is based on age, race, gender, and so on. The second was “acquired” diversity, which includes things like cultural fluency, military experience, and social media skills.
Like many studies on the topic, it found that diversity in leadership had a positive impact on business, and in particular on innovation. If a company had diverse leaders, it was more open to new ideas (63% vs. 45%); its projects were more likely to get developed or prototyped (48% vs. 35%); and those projects were more often deployed in the marketplace (35% vs. 20%).
So, if diversity in leadership is so desirable, why don’t more companies have it?
So, if diversity in leadership is so desirable, why don’t more companies have it? For one thing, the study shows that there are many ways to be diverse; and in fact, more of us are unalike than alike. At the same time, we have a fairly narrow definition of leadership.
For years, the corporate world was based on a top down, command-and-control style best suited for industrial and manufacturing-based companies. That resulted in a climate where businesses favored just one kind of leader: the strong and decisive decision maker.
These kinds of leaders are, of course, valuable. But they have become a one-size-fits-all mold—a default archetype. In a world where creativity, agility, and diversity are paramount to success, we can’t limit the variety of talent and the strengths of the people we have in leadership roles. Every company has many people in leadership roles, and they should not be all the same.
The truth is that leaders can be any type of person. They can be strong but also be graceful. They can be assertive but also be thoughtful. They can talk about achievements and about mistakes. They can be open about that feeling of being an imposter we all have as we take on new roles. And they can also be traditional, top-down decision makers too.
How do we produce a diverse class of leaders? My job has long been to observe brands and culture, and make recommendations to companies on how they can succeed. People like me typically advise brands to know who they are, play to their strengths, be authentic, and have their own voice.
We can urge aspiring leaders not to fit a mold, but to create their own mold and figure out who they are and what works for them.
We can offer the same lessons to young leaders today. After all, we’re all different. Just as brands discover and live their true identities, leaders can too. We can urge aspiring leaders not to fit a mold, but to create their own mold and figure out who they are and what works for them. We can encourage them to know their own strengths and develop their own unique and special leadership style. How can we all do this? Here are three ideas:
Live your truth. Start by being yourself. The world isn’t as closed to alternative viewpoints as it once was. Leadership is not about conforming to a specific image anymore. Instead, make leadership work for you and what’s great about you. Get in touch your strengths and weaknesses and develop them, while using mentors to inspire you.
Keep building your craft. You’re going to be most comfortable and influential being yourself when you know how to do your job well. This doesn’t, of course, mean you have to be perfect. There are no perfect leaders. You should set your own, ambitious standard of exceptionalism and then use every opportunity to develop and progress towards it.
Walk in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is a massively underleveraged quality in business today. Whether you’re working with teams, clients, or partners, it makes you relatable, human, and someone we can embrace and be inspired by. If you can’t understand or relate to what people around you are doing you can’t really lead them. It’s also really the only way you can develop talent. And with millennials and GenZers expecting relatability and authenticity, empathy has become a must-have for leaders everywhere.
The final point, of course, is that we can’t do this on our own. Many companies with great intentions still struggle to be open to a diverse and multi-faceted approach to leadership. To get there, they need to be more welcoming not just to different kinds of people—but to different kinds of leadership styles as well.
Today, we still need the leaders of year’s past. But we also need leaders who aren’t afraid to empathize, admit mistakes, and nurture a more thoughtful and creative culture.