Widespread inequities exist in the United States based on race, sex, language, and other factors. Racism, classism, and sexism create environments where marginalized members of society are denied freedom from favoritism and bias. In-group favoritism and out-group bias lead to discrimination and a lack of diversity in organizations. This discrimination results from failure, one person at a time, one action at a time failure. Are the diversity and equity challenges in society a leadership responsibility? If so, how can leaders respond?
Society's Diversity and Equity Challenge - Then and Now
Fifty-two years ago, in 1968, civil unrest in the United States increased in what was labeled "Holy Week" due to Dr. Martin Luther King, JR's assassination. The Holy Week riots across 54 cities resulted in 43 men and women killed, approximately 3,500 people injured, and 27,000 arrests. At the time, it was the most significant wave of social unrest since the Civil War. Fast-forward to today. Between May and August 2020, there were 10,600 demonstration events and 570 riots or protests involving violence in the United States (see Figure 1). History has proven that riots are typically carried out by marginalized people to bring attention to societal problems.
Note: Figure 1 adapted from Kishi, R. & Jones, S. (2020) Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
Riots produce damage and anguish in affected communities. In 2004 the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the effect of the Holy Week riots. The bureau concluded the riots created lasting economic harm such as increased insurance premiums, increased police and fire protection costs, reduced availability of municipal bonds, closed retail operations, and a reduced tax base due to the departure of middle to high-income families from areas hardest hit by the riots.
Where does a leader's responsibility start and stop? Boundaries and role clarity are essential for leaders. Responsibility is a belief that you are the person to make things happen either because of your job or a drive within that compels you. The diversity business case is clear, including increased innovation, better decision making, increased talent pools, and establishing a broader customer base. The CEOs of 200 leading US organizations are taking responsibility for equity and diversity and promise to drive change in six key areas - employment, finance, education, health, housing, and criminal justice. However, creating better social, political, education, and economic systems alone will not produce healthy and safe communities free of inequities without leadership. How leaders approach leading others and the priorities they set determines if equity and diversity investments are realized.
Leadership Style Matters
Leadership scholars agree that the world desperately needs a new approach to leadership. People desire leaders that listen, demonstrate empathy, healing, persuasion, foresight, develop others, and build communities. These characteristics align with the servant leadership style and this kind of leader is counter to historical views on leadership through power. A servant leadership style produces healthy communities by serving others' needs. In describing the best test of a servant leader, Greenleaf presents an approach to leadership that provides alignment with what people desire and society needs.
According to Greenleaf and Spears, the best test to identify a servant leader is if "those served grow as persons; become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants," and if the least privileged in society benefit.
Based on research, the moderating factor on realized diversity benefits is a shared organizational view of value-in-diversity. Boards and CEOs establish the corporate view of diversity and equity through their actions rather than their words. It's not the policies created or the talking point communications provided, but the talent pool diversity makeup and conversations with leaders that establish the organization’s view on diversity value. Unfortunately, too often, an organization's walk does not match its talk. When compensation scorecards are so complex that leaders concede in private that it is impossible to achieve every goal, then the priority of diversity and equity is not clearly communicated. Priorities matter. Adopting a servant leadership approach prioritizes others and creates healthy communities by serving others first and leading second.
Society's diversity and equity challenges and needs will not be met by one leader or organization. However, leaders can make a difference by adopting a servant leadership style and establishing an organizational view of diversity value. To learn more about the servant leadership style check out this related article and for help with creating a culture of diversity and equity contact us.
"Anyone can be great because anyone can be a servant." Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.
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About the Author:
Jeff's knowledge and expertise include leadership development, servant leadership, and coaching to grow individuals and organizations. Jeff has experience from start-ups to Fortune 50 public, Forbes 25 private, for-profit, and non-profit organizations across diverse industries. Jeff Doolittle is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (616) 803-9020. Visit his blog at https://www.organizationaltalent.com/blog-1 for more ideas to stimulate individual, team, and organizational effectiveness.