Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles on the A-B C’s of Leadership, outlining the characteristics for effective leadership.
Andrew Faas, Author and Activist
Astute observers will notice that where you once saw the word “diversity” being used in the business world, you now see “inclusion”—but being inclusive is so much more than ditching an overused word for a fresh synonym. I think Jean Vanier captured the essence of inclusion when he wrote, “Those who are weak have great difficulty finding their place in our society. The image of the ideal human as powerful and capable disenfranchises, the old, the sick, the less-abled. For me society must, by definition, be inclusive of the needs and gifts of all of its members. How can we lay claim to making an open and friendly society where human rights are respected and fostered when, by the values we teach and foster, we systematically exclude segments of our population? When we do include them, they add richly to our lives and add immensely to our world.”
This enrichment extends to the corporate world as well. Consider this evidence:
This Forbes study shows how diversity and inclusion fosters innovation in a workforce. McKinsey and Co. showed how top-performing companies have the most diverse top teams. A study of Fortune 1000 companies showed that businesses with women at the helm earned investors a 340 percent return. And a study by Harvard Business Review shows that “diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth.”
In other words, being inclusive is good for business.
I learned the art of inclusion early on. A few years ago at a talk I gave at a university a cocky student stood up and challenged, “Well it’s pretty easy for you to say considering you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”
My immediate reaction was to verbally smack him, but then I thought — he’s right, and responded by acknowledging it with a qualifier, indicating that I grew up with many silver spoons; but, they were not material in nature, but rather a community of people who instilled in me values and beliefs, and the characteristics and attributes necessary to become successful in life as a citizen, a family member, a worker, a leader, and a role model.
Much of what was instilled and learned happened in my hometown of Dresden, Ontario. For me, Dresden was a magical place to live, learn, work, worship and play. There I developed a wonderful sense of community and belonging.
When my family emigrated from The Netherlands over a half century ago, we were inclusively embraced by the community and integrated into its social fabric. Although we were immigrants, we were not outsiders. We became equal citizens.
Dresden is where I learned that, like individuals, no community is perfect; and that the real test of character is perfecting making right what was wrong. In Canada, when we arrived, there was still a racial divide. In 1956, Dresden native Hugh Burnett became an unsung national hero by forcing the government to, for the first time in Canada, declare racial equality to be a civil right.
I remember well how Dresden responded, and evolved over time, perfecting making right what was wrong.
My dad, Casper, of whom my brothers and I are so proud, played a part in this by welcoming black clientele when he opened his barbershop after working for a few years at Ford’s barbershop where blacks were not welcome. Dresden, at the time, had five barbershops; so there was a fair bit of competition. Because of this decision, the barbershop thrived – not just because he had black clientele, but more importantly, the white clientele switched to show their support of this stance. In the 1960s, because of the Beatles, it was pretty slim pickings for barbers. Most of the young men (including me and my four brothers) in town let their hair grow down to the shoulders. Dad’s shop survived when the others failed. Inclusion made it possible.
True democracies are inclusive. Sadly, there seems to be fewer Dresdens today. Now we are witnessing an erosion of democracy, where individuals and groups of individuals are being denied the fundamental right of inclusiveness. Populist politicians, extreme fundamentalists, the established elite, misinformed protectionists, and self-righteous isolationists are on a systemic campaign to drive out those who don’t conform to their ideal.
Much of the right wing elite in business and politics have, for a variety of reasons, disregarded the whole notion of diversity and inclusion. It’s a shame because examples like my dad’s barbershop are still true. I still consider one of the greatest achievements of my career providing access to jobs for youth with intellectual disabilities. It was early in my career when I was an executive at Loblaw, Canada’s largest retailer. Loblaw hired many students part time and we asked them to mentor the intellectually challenged young people to help them succeed. The dividends were enormous. The students learned how to work with and support others who were different from themselves and the program had an enormous positive customer impact. The program lives on today and many of those students found careers at Loblaw or used it as a springboard for other opportunities. And their mentees had careers that allowed them to be self-sufficient.
Examples like Loblaw and Costco where differences are embraced and add to the success of the company are too few and far between. In spite of the billions spent on diversity programs and sensitivity training over the last two decades, inclusion has barely improved, and, some can legitimately argue, has gotten worse. My assessment of these programs is they amount to little more than a pile of human resource gobbledygook and exercises in appropriate linguistics and political correctness. In far too many companies these programs are just there to provide legal cover.
Consider a 2017 Deloitte poll that reported, “Seventy-two percent of working Americans surveyed would or may consider leaving an organization for one they think is more inclusive.” The survey also found that 30 percent of millennials said they have already left a job for one with a more inclusive culture. Clearly diversity programs aren’t getting the job done. True inclusion requires more than sensitivity, it requires a systemic change where self-realization and the Ethic of Reciprocity become guiding principles of the company. This can also help forestall another major obstacle to inclusion—the bully boss.
Bully bosses are infamous for excluding those who offer different perspectives and challenge their ideas. Whistleblowers are particularly at risk of being excluded to the point of being eliminated.
In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong observed: “We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours.”
So the question becomes—where to begin? To create an inclusive culture, individuals need to reflect on how inclusive they are and why they include or exclude others from their universe.
Everyone has conscious and unconscious biases. My challenge to everyone is to do an honest assessment on what your conscious and unconscious biases are. Here’s what I discovered when I assessed mine:
My conscious biases go against:
Those who do not practice the Ethic of Reciprocity
Those who abuse others
My conscious biases favor:
The vulnerable and defenseless
Those who play by the rules
Those who challenge the status quo
The intellectually honest
My unconscious biases have gone against:
Those who are not able to effectively communicate
Those who do not assert themselves
Those who champion the nebulous and abstract
My unconscious biases have favored:
Those who have presence
Those who appear confident
Those who appear authentic
In this assessment I have discovered that I was in many instances wrong about those I went against and those I favored. Thanks to this process, my unconscious biases have either been challenged or have become my conscious biases. This is just the first step to becoming more inclusive. As I continue to bring more inclusion into my life, I will keep in mind George Washington Carver’s most compelling argument for inclusiveness:
“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.”