Google “leadership experts” and you’ll come up with the following image:
Notice a theme here?
Keys to strong leadership include seeing things from different perspectives, thinking outside of the box, and going beyond conventional norms. Yet, how do we become proficient in those abilities when all the so-called experts are homogeneous: older, white, and male?
Expanding Our Ideas of Who Leadership Experts Are
Yes, I fit into two of those categories as well. It’s not a knock on any individual, race, or gender. It is, however, a call to look beyond the status quo. In doing so, we can seek out leaders who we aren’t exposed to through mainstream media or re-think our preconceived images of leaders.
Too often, leaders pay more attention to those who look like them, think like them, and act like them. Although they typically don’t do this consciously, the impact is still the same. People who are different are ignored, treated as second-class (if they’re lucky), or devalued. I see this all the time in organizations in terms of who is promoted, who’s ideas are heard, who gets the boss’s ear, who’s in the know, who gets paid more, who is chosen for special projects, and so on.
Redefining Leadership Experts
Based on my search above, this mentality is embedded in our culture. Look at people like Maya Angelou, Victor Frankl, Black Elk, Oprah Winfrey, Billy Frank, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Tank Man, Brené Brown, and The Dalai Lama. Why don’t their names come up when searching for leadership experts? In fact, the only time they might show up in a search of “leadership experts” is if you put an adjective before the term “leader” (i.e., Asian, female, Native American, young, etc.). Ironically, if you compare some of these people to the men who appear in the search above, notice whose leadership has been powerful enough to literally change culture versus just teaching leadership. The people in the list above do leadership.
Redefining Diversity in the Workplace
Look beyond the people who represent the dominant culture if you want to innovate, if you want to be inclusive, if you want to demonstrate that you truly care about your people. Not just in popular culture, but within your own life and organization. Ask these questions to expand your perspective:
- Who are the people in your everyday life who embody leadership but don’t fit the dominant culture’s mold of leadership, and what can you learn from them?
- When you think of different demographics (age, race, physical ability, ethnicity, religion, gender), what are some groups who you have not been exposed to and could learn more about through books, videos, or in person?
- When you look at leaders of different backgrounds throughout history, what can you learn through their example that might run counter to what you’ve been taught about leadership? How can you incorporate that learning into how you lead?
Notice people who you might typically overlook to redefine your perception of leaders, whether it’s a colleague, employee, community member, or person on the street. Leaders are everywhere if we are open to seeing them.