A Diverse Leadership Philosophy

It’s been a relatively quiet week on the diversity front — thank everything. There have been the usual discrimination, bias and gender rumblings, of course, but aside from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pledging to educate teams on domestic violence and Michael Brown’s killer testifying before a grand jury, there haven’t been any catastrophic demonstrations.

This meant I got to do something unusual — read to learn rather than read to inform. My reading material of choice: “How Philosophy Makes You a Better Leader” by David Brendel via Harvard Business Review.

The article talked about a neglected facet of leadership development and executive coaching — the impact of beliefs and values on behavior. Specifically, “the benefits of introspection and reflection on one’s own character and beliefs receive less attention in a typical coaching session than the benefits of behavior change,” Brendel wrote.

Who has time for introspection anyway, right? I just finished telling you it’s unusual for me to be able to read something because I want to, not because I have to for work. But this article presented a particularly succulent idea to chew on as it relates to inclusion and diversity.

Apparently there is an area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, that is activated during self-reflection. The ACC “can detect discrepancies between the actual and the desired state” — someone saying they support diversity and then doing nothing else, for example — “mediate integration and evaluation of emotional, motivational, and cognitive information, and modulate attention.” All of that is an elaborate way of saying the ACC can help leaders identify their values and goals, use the information at hand to meet those goals and then act decisively.

Brendel, an executive coach and philosophical counselor,said he often suggests leaders consider — in light of serious challenges or crisis’ — his “SANE” mnemonic based on key questions posed by popular Western philosophers: Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the Existentialists. I added my own diversity spin at the end.

Socrates: What is the most challenging question someone could ask me about my current approach [to inclusion and diversity]?

Aristotle: What character virtues are most important to me and how will I express them [when it comes to hiring, retaining, developing and promoting diverse talent? Where are unintentional areas of bias in these processes that inhibit me or my organization from taking advantage of the benefits inherent in a diverse talent pool?]

Nietzsche: How will I direct my “will to power,” manage my self-interest, and act in accordance with my chosen values [around inclusion and diversity]?

Existentialists (e.g., Sartre): How will I take full responsibility for my choices and the outcomes to which they lead [in matters of inclusion and diversity]?

It’s heady stuff, but relevant. So, if you can find the time for a little self-reflection, ask yourself: What do you believe in? Do you believe that minorities are worthy of special scrutiny, for instance? Before you say, “of course not!” and rear back defensively from the very idea, think about it.

If you do, you’re certainly not alone. We all, women and minorities included, are prone to bias in some form or another. So, it’s not the end of the world. But you should know that changing inherent beliefs around women and minority worth, skill and ability could mean the difference between you growing as a leader — and you potentially preventing someone else’s growth in the same vein — and your company growing as well.

Diversity executives can help leaders interested in exploring this particular kind of head trip by taking the journey first. I imagine we all could benefit from the odd mindfulness activity, and Brendel said while this does take time and effort, the benefits are there: “The reward of self-reflection is what Aristotle called phronesis (practical wisdom). Contemplating timeless philosophical values can fuel timely behavior changes in the service of growth and lasting success.”