Great Leaders Bring Together Diverse Teams

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

While there is considerable debate around the definition of diversity, there is little disagreement about its importance. Unfortunately, while the focus has been on the legal issues related to equal opportunity, we might have missed the larger point of diversity itself. It is an indisputable fact that there is almost an infinite variety of flora, fauna, and other living things on this planet. The true value of biota and bio-diversity is the inherent richness of all life and the presence of all that keeps the world in balance. Alternatively, another way of thinking about it is that the best part of diversity exists in is complementarity.

Just as many flavors come together to make great soup or salad (or nearly every other dish for that matter), diversity is about pulling together the right mix of several things. Great chefs might lead the way in their talent for utilizing great combinations. Their primary skills are in the selection and use of the right ingredients. Managers would be wise to develop the same skills.

Diversity of Perspective
Perhaps the greatest advantage that diversity brings is different ways of being, thinking, and approaching life. At the root of these differences is the diversity of perspective. When an argument is made about the value of diversity found in gender, race, religion, disability, veteran, national origin, or marital status, etc., they are all really just proxies for diversity of experience, and therefore perspective. Considerable research, like Scott Page’s groundbreaking article “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers,” has repeatedly shown that a multicultural mix of talent is usually more effective at a variety of real-life problems, science, business , and creative endeavors than any homogenous group — even a collection of experts. Because heterogeneous groups think differently, they are more likely to bring a richer, broader set of ideas, skills, and techniques to the table.

Diversity Is a Leadership Competency
Good conductors utilize different instruments for various effects. Great conductors select the right musicians with styles complementary to the music. Great coaches do not recruit the best athletes; they recruit capable athletes that would perform their best in the way the team plays. Directors do not hire the most famous actors if they want to create award-winning movies; they hire the right actors for the right part.

We all have seen Oscar-winning actors perform poorly in roles for which they were miscast. Seasoned leaders know that no one has a corner on being the best qualified because ‘best’ is determined in the context of what is required in a given circumstance. Beyond this understanding is the awareness that putting together complementary components is what makes great work and great teamwork. The best leaders know this. So do the best managers, coaches, directors, and — hopefully — the best deans, vice presidents, and provosts. Diversity then is a leadership competency; it is a skill that one must hone to be an effective leader in the 21st century.

Diversity KSAOs
If we were to dissect diversity as a skill, we could borrow the KSAOs — the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other factors — framework to detail its application. First, knowledge would be the awareness, understanding, and appreciation of difference. Ability is the capacity and willingness to do something, and skill is learned proficiency. For diversity, having openness, compassion for others, and willingness to work cross-culturally would demonstrate one’s ability, while effectively engaging others, building partnerships, diffusing tensions, or organizing collaborations would demonstrate diversity-related skills. The ‘other’ work-related factors might involve one’s attitude, support, and advocacy for working across differences. An individual who is open to new ideas, who can work effectively with anyone, and who knows how to select and assign the right task to the right person would be a great exemplar for the cause of diversity as a skill.

The ability and experience to pull together the right mix and complementary collection of talents to address a problem is truly a leadership competency. Every supervisor, manager, administrator, coach, teacher, or leader would be wise to develop this skill. Great directors know this intuitively. They bring together the right crew, writers, stunt people, actors, and supporting cast for the purpose of filming a great movie. Every department head would be wise to have the same eye for talent and skill of pulling together the right mix of people and perspectives as they hire faculty with complementary — not identical — backgrounds that advance their department’s research agenda. In higher education’s vernacular, this would be the goal of cluster hiring. A vice president of student services should seek the same goal as she hires a diverse set of counselors to support a diverse student body. Knowing how to use the advantages of diversity is a 21st-century skill that all individuals and leaders should possess.

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