Archive for May, 2010

Workplace Diversity: Practice and Research

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Advisory board member.  The School of Management at George Mason University invites diversity professionals to its 4th annual diversity conference, held at the Hilton Hotel, Arlington, VA.  Explore latest best practices and research in diversity management specific to changing organizational cultures to increase diversity, inclusion, and performance in the workplace. For more information, contact

Too smart to lead?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

In a recent Washington Post “On Leadership” the question was raised regarding Elena Kagan’s nomination to teh Supreme Court and the prospect of an “all-Ivy” bench. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

If you look at the possible “all-Ivy” complexion of an emerging Supreme Court, it’s easy to find comfort in the fact that this could be a “dream team” aggregation of legal smarts that can only benefit the country.  After all, having the brightest and the best at the helm is the ultimate goal in any meritocracy, so it’s hard to argue that we should have less qualified people on the bench.

The problem with this picture is that in an increasingly complex world, we don’t question the definition of “best” enough.   We look for single indicators of excellence—IQ, or years of experience, or law school education—and we act as though if we just pick enough people with high marks on a given one, we will have satisfied the objective of getting the best.

If only it were that easy.

In jobs as important and complex as the post of Supreme Court Justice, there can be no single indicator that captures “best.”  We must consider a variety of factors in assembling the best team of justices, and one of those factors has to be the diversity of perspectives that the team collectively produces.  The problem with an all-Ivy lineup is that in a domain in which diverse perspectives are critically important in creating just results, we foment all sorts of biases by not being more intentional in using diversity to create checks and balances in how the Court operates.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of Ivy League minds coming together.  High intelligence and excellent legal training are an essential part of a great Supreme Court.  But we have to ask what else matters in rendering justice?  What great minds from other educational perspectives and training grounds can collaborate to make sure the Court does not stroll along an Ivy-biased trail of legal thinking. As the Court ruled in 2003 in two cases dealing with admissions practices in higher education, diversity can be and is often a valid criterion upon which people can be selected for a position if that diversity is essential to creating the best results.  Shouldn’t we apply this logic to the Court itself?

I don’t have anything against folks from the Ivy League.  Some of my best friends went to school there. And I don’t know if the addition of Elena Kagan will complete an Ivy dream team or not.  But I know from my research and professional experience that we are not good at seeing complexity in selection decisions like this.  We want to believe that if we have one clear and transparent indicator of performance, like Ivy League education, then we can achieve great results.  But justice won’t come from a homogeneous set of legal minds on the Supreme Court.  It will only come from the skillful mixing of diverse ideas and perspectives.

She leads, we follow.

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Real change is never a one-person show.  Real change happens when the work of formal leaders—leaders in the center—is complemented by the work of leaders on the margin.

In any significant movement for change, whether in business, politics, or larger society, the person who holds the mantle of leadership can only accomplish so much on his or her own.  For example, when Dorothy Height died last month, I was reminded in reading her obituary how her leadership shaped the direction of the civil rights movement, even though she did not have the widespread name recognition of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond.  We properly celebrate the accomplishments of high profile positional leaders, but we are less adept at understanding the leadership in the background.

What can we learn about great leaders on the margin, leaders like the most influential First Ladies?  First, they are smart, skillful and savvy.  Leading from the margin means having a clear vision of what happens in the mainstream.  People on the margin observe and reflect, often having fewer options to act because they have less access to tangible resources.  But when they do get the chance to make a difference, they put what they have learned into action.

Second, they lead through referent power—power derived from integrity, admiration and respect—rather than formal power bestowed on them by their position.  A slightly oversimplified example: President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief, and when he issues an order, it must be obeyed because he is the boss.  First lady Obama may not get things done only because she orders it (though I’m sure she has some juice).  She likely also gets things done because she garners a high degree of respect and esteem.  That’s what referent power is all about.  And by the way, referent power is an almost bottomless well of power.  As long as a leader exhibits integrity and skill, people will follow her or him anywhere.  Once that integrity is damaged, the power base disintegrates.  As a corollary,  leaders from the margin influence and leverage networks of critically important players who help them achieve their objectives.

Finally, leaders from the margin can see the world in a way that most people do not and that often makes them especially innovative.  They are not as restricted in their thinking by conventional rules and norms.  They can focus their energies on critical issues that are often overlooked or undervalued by the majority in the center.  Their unique perspective is honed by lots of experience studying the dominant leaders and decision-makers and capitalizing on their blind spots.  This makes leaders from the margin among the most valuable catalysts for real change in any organization or society.

NOTE: On this topic, my colleague, Erika Hayes James will be teaching a new Executive Education class at Darden, October 11-15, 2010 called “Women Emerging in Leadership.”  If you are a woman at any level of management, or aspiring to be, please consider attending this valuable course from the top ranked Executive Education program in the world. For more information, contact Darden’s Executive Education department.