In a speech given on a Spring day in 1954, marine biologist Rachel Carson told the crowd “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” In Carson’s book The Sea Around Us, she writes about the oceans in a language digestible for all. She received countless responses from individuals from all walks of life, many sharing in the same reverence for how the book made them feel. Carson shares, “so many of them have said, in one phrasing or another: ‘We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man; it helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. And when we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.’” Carson spoke of beauty and wonder, suggesting they are not measured economically, but impact how we feel and live. Do these concepts belong among the competencies of a great leader?
The debate on the roles and responsibility of a business, its place in the community, and how to measure success have been around for quite some time fundamentally influencing how we define a great leader. From John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman to Antonio Gramsci and everything in between, there are a myriad of opinions and research-based theories to consider when formulating your own opinion. As we move into a new year, one that succeeds a year rife with destruction and loss, opinions are shifting and there is something peculiar about new beginnings that nourishes optimism. Leaders across industries are increasingly in need of support in evolving and adapting to the quickly changing, global landscape and how we define success in organizations. In a Harvard Business School article on How to Develop Your Leadership Style, authors Suzanne Peterson, Robin Abramson, and R. K. Stutman write, “successful leaders are true to who they are while continually making small adjustments in how they carry themselves, how they communicate, and how they interact depending on the circumstances.” Suggesting the use of “leadership markers” to help understand what your natural inclinations are, where that falls on the spectrum of powerful and attractive, and how to adjust for improvement, the authors provide useful examples for how this can be used to be a better leader. Without suggesting a more fitting approach over another, but rather looking at situations, audience, and goals, the authors demonstrate the importance of evolution and awareness in one’s actions and leadership approach. Let’s consider a current example, inclusion and diversity in the workplace, where the goal should be wellbeing creation, not wealth creation.
Goals are often complex: individual, collective, singular, multi-dimensional, rewarded, expected, local, global, etc. As our world continues to grow more interconnected, by way of the internet, travel, technology, and global capitalism, the case for prioritizing wellbeing creation becomes more dire. During the Summer of 2020, an explicit example of this shift can be examined: many leaders felt compelled to address racism and inequality in the workplace after the multiple police shootings of Black men and women, particularly the 8:26 second video of George Floyd’s murder. As organizations pledged financial support and added new layers to existing I&D programs or created brand new strategies, many underrepresented identity groups were skeptical. For decades, the business case for diversity has been a fundamental building block of inclusion and diversity programs and diversity management theories ultimately generating superficial buy-in because it was believed diverse teams were more creative and positively impacted the bottom line. However, research suggests this is not only detrimental to building equity in the workplace, but it also can have an adverse effect.
In Robin J. Ely and David Thomas’ article on Getting Serious About Diversity, a critique of the business case for diversity reminds us that “scholarly researchers have rarely found that increased diversity leads to improved financial outcomes. They have found that it leads to higher-quality work, better decision-making, greater team satisfaction, and more quality — under certain circumstances.” The danger of the business case for diversity is it is oversimplified and singularly-focused. In fact, researchers found the business case for diversity discounts inequality, citing “studies have shown that making the economic case diminishes people’s sense that equality is itself important, limits socially conscious investors’ ability to promote it, and may even increase bias.” As the authors put it, you can’t just stir in diversity and go, “what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity, and whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure.” Herein lies the nuance of an organization thus a leader’s goals — are you focused on wealth creation, well-being creation, both? Are they mutually exclusive? Is improved financial outcomes valued over higher quality work, better decision making, and greater team satisfaction? The four actions Ely and Thomas recommend to create a learning-and-effectiveness paradigm, a strategy they argue supports real progress, include building trust, actively working against discrimination and subordination, embracing a wide range of styles and voices, and making cultural differences a resource for learning. Well-being creation begins to come into focus as the bedrock goal.
Diving deeper into the examples of I&D program and strategy development last summer, cultural difference comes up more and more frequently in inclusion and diversity research. In the book The Oxford Handbook of Diversity in Organizations, Anna-Liisa Kaasila-Pakanen uses postcolonial theory to deconstruct multiculturalism and diversity management and calls for respect for cultural difference, not cultural diversity. Citing Bhabha’s work, Kaasila-Pakanen argues the problematic nature of cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and diversity management practices, “because it merely means recognizing pre-given cultural contents and customs and representing the rhetoric of a separation of totalized cultures that remain untouched by the interrelations of their historical locations, guarding the myth of a unique collective identity” (p. 177).
To truly respect cultural difference, supporting the goal of well-being, we need to consider identities as becoming, remove the binary lenses we currently use to understand the world around us, refuse to separate self from other, and recognize, confront, and reconcile the categories that have been defined in historical, colonial representations which are often incorrect and harmful.
So, how does wonder fit in?
Wonder is defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” When something is different, it is unfamiliar. When one sees or experiences something for the first time, it is unfamiliar. More and more, it appears our society has effectively replaced unfamiliar and different with fear. Perhaps now it is time to replace fear with wonder. Curiosity can remedy doubt, marvel can remedy concern, and admiration can remedy scorn. As we age, we seem to neglect wonder. We get comfortable in the things we know how to do well, and we keep doing them. This ripples through all aspects of our lives — work, home, hobbies, wellness, etc. It’s often associated with the concept of plateauing. Do you remember the last time you tried doing something new? Maybe your first attempt didn’t go so well, but when you tried a second and third time, the small win, the sense of accomplishment unlocked a desire to learn more. To wonder more. As we think about leadership competencies, what the goals of businesses are and could be, let us think about failure as a means to learn. Let us recognize that humans are fallible, not pure, and if we are curious enough, change and failure leads to wonder and innovation. Returning to Peterson, Abramson, and Stutman’s leadership markers, they make the argument that “dynamically integrating a broader range of powerful and attractive markers in everyday interactions can make a big difference in how we are perceived. The result is a true blended style that enables leaders to become powerful enough to be heard and attractive enough to be followed.” By reframing our perspective and replacing fear with wonder, we can begin to return to curiosity. With a goal of doing the right thing more often than not (remember, we are human, fallible, and impure) and adding in wonder to the attractiveness markers, this just might be a strategy that enables the embrace of cultural difference, helping to support equity in the workplace and centering well-being.
In David Whyte’s TEDTalk A lyrical bridge between past, present, and future, he tells the story of his young niece’s 500-mile hike to El Camino de Santiago de Compestela in search of understanding, future, and wonder. Inspired by her account of the sun, moon, and sea and the moment she realized she had to “walk across the unknown sea into her future,” Whyte wrote the poem Finisterre. In it, he states “the way forward always in the end the way that you came,” which serves as a magnificent reminder of the value in preserving the act of wonder, and perhaps, it’s time to return to our childhood curiosity.
This article was written by Mia Amato Caliendo and has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com
Ely, R. J., & Thomas, D. A. (2020, October 20). Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2020/11/getting-serious-about-diversity-enough-already-with-the-business-case
Kaasila-Pakanen, A-L. (2015). A Postcolonial Deconstruction of Diversity Management and Multiculturalism. In R. Bendl, I. Bleijenbergh, E. Henttonen, & A. J. Mills (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Diversity in Organizations (pp. 175–194). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, S. J., Abramson, R., & Stutman, R. (2020, October 20). Harvard Business Review. How to Develop Your Leadership Style. Retrieved January 4, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2020/11/how-to-develop-your-leadership-style
Popova, M. (2017, September). Rachel Carson on Science and Our Spiritual Bond with Nature. Brain Pickings. Retrieved January 4, 2021, from https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/09/20/rachel-carson-lost-woods-the-real-world-around-us/
Whyte, D. (2017, April). “A lyrical bridge between past, present and future.” TedTalk. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.ted.com/talks/david_whyte_a_lyrical_bridge_between_past_present_and_future?language=en