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The Diversity and Equity Leadership Challenge to Solve

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.

Leadership Responsibility

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.

Leadership Priorities

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.


Blanchard, K., & Broadwell, R. (2018). Servant leadership in action (1st ed.) Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cox, T. (1993). Cultural diversity in organizations: Theory, research & practice (1st ed.). San Francisco, Calif: Berrett-Koehler.

Greenleaf, R. (2008) The servant as leader. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf, R. K., & Spears, L. C. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th anniversary ed.). Paulist Press.

Greenwald, A. G., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2014). With malice toward none and charity for some: Ingroup favoritism enables discrimination. The American Psychologist, 69(7), 669-684. doi:10.1037/a0036056

Guillaume, Y. R. F., Dawson, J. F., Otaye-Ebede, L., Woods, S. A., & West, M. A. (2017). Harnessing demographic differences in organizations: What moderates the effects of workplace diversity? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(2), 276-303. doi:10.1002/job.2040

Holdo, M., & Bengtsson, B. (2019). Marginalization and riots: A rationalistic explanation of urban unrest. Housing, Theory, and Society, , 1-18. doi:10.1080/14036096.2019.1578996

Kishi, R. & Jones, S. (2020). Demonstrations and political violence in America: New data for summer 2020. Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

Marina, B. L. H., & Fonteneau, D. Y. (2012). Servant leaders who picked up the broken glass. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 5(2), 67-83.

Sendjaya, S., & Pekerti, A. (2010). Servant leadership as antecedent of trust in organizations. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31(7), 643-663. doi:10.1108/01437731011079673

Sivashanker, K., & Gandhi, T. K. (2020). Advancing safety and equity together. The New England Journal of Medicine, 382(4), 301-303. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1911700

Spears, L. C. (1998). Servant-leadership. Executive Excellence, 15(7), 11.

Trompenaars, A., & Voerman, E. (2010). Servant-leadership across cultures: Harnessing the strength of the world's most powerful management philosophy. McGraw-Hill.


Are you interested in better understanding your own leadership style?

Contact Organizational Talent Consulting to learn more about a leadership style inventory assessment you can use to measure your preferred leadership style and receive individualized executive coaching.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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