Over the last few years I have encountered some fantastically ethical, well-intentioned leaders who buy into the importance of setting the tone around inclusivity. They understand the symbolic value of someone at the top sending a clear message about moving beyond diversity to inclusiveness – a difference I heard pithily captured on Twitter by @vernamyers when she said “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
These leaders can have a significant impact. They genuinely want to create workplaces where their staff thrive, not least those who identify as coming from one or more of the commonly identified minority groups. This kind of leadership is one heck of a start – but I think it can go up a gear. I mean the kind of step change that a leader makes when they can say to themselves, “This inclusivity stuff isn’t just about “them” it’s about me and my difference too.”
There is nothing quite like first-hand experience as a route to meaningful insight and motivation. Leaders who are able to tap into their own experience of being different can draw on powerful and personal intelligence to inform the way they shape their organisations. There isn’t a soul alive who hasn’t had the experience of feeling like the different one, set apart from the majority by virtue of anything from age, class, education, voice, humour, literacy, sporting affiliation and musical taste through to ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender and disability.
There are times when we have all feared that an aspect of our identity may not be welcomed in a particular grouping – whether amongst family, classmates, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues or clients. This may lead us to “closet” that aspect of difference out of concern about how it will be received. We qualify what we say and to whom. This withholding can’t but have an impact on the relationships we have. Authentic leadership theory – of the sort expressed by people like Bruce Avolio and William Gardener – also suggests this has a negative impact on performance. In effect, feeling that who we are is in some way “not OK” will compromise the degree to which we can realise our talent. Which brings us back to leadership – because leaders really, really have to be interested in what is going on around talent.
I want to introduce the idea of “Out Leadership” as a form of turbo-charged inclusive leadership. This is when leaders get that difference is to do with them and visibly, consistently and explicitly demonstrate that they are OK with their own difference – whatever it may be. For followers this sets up an expectation that their difference is likely to be OK too, which in turn makes it likely that they bring more of their talent to the table.
Out Leaders tend to have a habit of disciplined reflection – they take time to question what they are learning from experience and critically question what they have said and done. Often they seek structured help in doing this – perhaps from a coach or trusted colleague.
If you felt like a spot of reflection on this topic – perhaps you could individually, or in conversation with someone you trust, mull on the questions below:
Think of a time when you felt you had a “closeted difference”:
- Why did you choose to hide the difference?
- What was the effect of being “closeted”?
- What did you learn from the experience?
- What did / could have made your difference OK?
- Any insights that could be applied to your leadership?
Out Leadership, whilst unashamedly drawing on LGBT experience and metaphor, is meant to be widely applicable. An Out Leader – irrespective of their sexual orientation – makes smart risk assessments and understands the consequences of withholding or sharing their difference. They grasp that sometimes non-disclosure is smart and necessary. Just as I can decide not to hold my wife’s hand in certain public situations without losing my authenticity, so too an Out Leader need not put their difference front-and-centre in every client pitch. However – all other things being equal – an Out Leader will strive to be most themselves in as many situations as possible.
In summary, if you are an Out Leader you:
- Acknowledge that inclusivity applies to you as well as “them”
- Model that you are OK with your own difference
- Encourage others that their difference is valued – it’s part of your job as leader
- Reflect regularly on your experience to mine it for learning
- Have the courage to question self and others
- Demonstrate resilience in tolerating resistance and push back
- Are able to handle uncertainty to seek out “teachable moments”, ask questions and generate feedback
- Are deeply curious about difference and enquire into others’ world view
- Have an everyday practice which means inclusion is integral to your leadership, not a bolt-on
This thinking is still very much at a formative stage – so please extend or challenge the ideas in this blog. I’d love it if you came back to me with stories of when you have seen Out Leadership in action – or when it has been notably absent and the effect this had. Perhaps you are an Out Leader and are willing to share some suggestions or insights.
As a parting thought, I believe that Out Leaders show that inclusivity – at its best – is supremely personal. They are also visible role models – which will be the topic of my next blog and is also the focus of the latest Stonewall research.