Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D.

Kira Hudson Banks Ph.D.

Race Matters

Diversity in Leadership

APA's special issue on diversity in leadership is on point.

Posted Jun 10, 2010

The American Psychologist recently dedicated an issue to diversity in leadership. That's a big deal. The American Psychologist is one of the biggest platforms for the field and is about as mainstream and all reaching as you can get. Why, you might ask, is it such a big deal that the terms "leadership" and "diversity" were put together? The leadership literature has a long tradition, and it most often does not incorporate issues of diversity let alone social justice.

If we are honest with ourselves the model of leadership has been largely based on White Protestant males. Therefore, as people from different backgrounds break through barriers, we must consider if they are being asked to play within the traditional frame or being given the full chance to effect change as leaders.

Again, you might ask, "Why the big deal?" Given that the demographics of the US are increasingly more diverse, it is imperative that the field considers not only leaders from diverse backgrounds but also how to lead diverse constituents. So beyond diversity being a nice thing to have, or a warm and fuzzy extra that also affects the bottom line, this special issue infuses the concept into the framework of how we understand and define leadership.

Theories of leadership are important, because they serve as the foundation and influence the shape of many organizations. One of the articles that stuck out to me was by Todd Pittinsky who put forward a two-dimensional model of intergroup leadership. His theory speaks to the ill-placed assumption that we must downplay diverse aspects of our identities to achieve a sense of "we" or "us." Pittinsky suggests that leaders should consider two dimensions when attempting to create a sense of collectivism, which is a positive factor for group success: negative intergroup attitudes and positive intergroup attitudes. So rather than considering these constructs as the flip side of the same thing, he suggests that they should be treated as distinct.

For example, as a leader, it would be important for me to increase the positive attitudes my constituents have about each other while also intentionally attempting to decrease negative attitudes. These goals might be achieved through the same activities but might also call for specific responses. Spaces where cooperative interaction is necessary would help to simultaneously decrease negative attitudes and increase positive attitudes. However, an atmosphere in which a particular groups' way of doing things is accepted as the norm rather than an exception would specifically aim to reduce negative attitudes. For example, if a company institutionally sanctions flex hours during Ramadan or uses the term partner as the norm rather than "husband/wife/spouse" these acts would leave more room for variation. It is more inclusive of diverse aspects of identity, therefore, possibly reducing the negative perception of a person as being "different" or asking for "special treatment."

If we think about leadership as a process of goal attainment within a group context, the importance of redefining our thinking is clear. In order to create a climate where a leader can motivate and inspire those who follow, a knowledge base of diverse people is necessary. Furthermore, an ability to work effectively with people across lines of difference is integral to creating buy-in and ultimately reaching goals. Ultimately, it is the leader who sets the tone for the group and can help to foster effective intergroup dynamics. This special issue suggests that the field of psychology is pushing us forward to rethink leadership in a more inclusive way.

Rather than being relegated to a chapter or text box, diversity in leadership should be incorporated into the education of business majors, managers and executives. As companies become multinational it will be essential that diversity be integrated throughout the organizational structure.

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