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Juana Bordas

Quality Insider

White Men Can’t Lead Everyone

8 Ways to Practice Multicultural Leadership<br><br>Opinion

Published: Monday, October 15, 2007 - 21:00

Not only is the world getting flatter, it’s becoming more colorful. As globalization becomes a reality, more and more companies will employ people of every race, nationality, religious background, and age group. These people will work side by side in the same office building, others a hemisphere away. That’s why if your company is still leading the old—white, male, authoritarian—way, you’re making a mistake. It would be great if you could magically fill your leadership ranks with men and women from different cultures, backgrounds, and traditions. But if that’s unrealistic, you can gain a lot by simply borrowing their techniques.

Today’s leadership models, although they may differ from person to person and method to method, generally have a common bias toward Western- or European-influenced ways of thinking. We’re leading as if our companies are filled with white men and that’s clearly no longer the case. Contemporary leadership theories exclude the enormous contributions, potential learning, and valuable insights that come from other communities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2010 one-third of U.S. residents will be able to trace their descents to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, or the Middle East. In Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, I explain that the most successful businesses will incorporate the influences, practices, and values of these diverse cultures in a respectful and productive manner. Through implementing multicultural leadership, not only will your company’s environment be a better, more enjoyable place to work, you will be able to better handle the needs of your multicultural customers.

Multicultural leadership encourages an inclusive and adaptable style that cultivates the ability to bring out the best in our diverse workforce and to fashion a sense of community with people from many parts of the globe. It enables a wide spectrum of people to actively engage, contribute, and tap their potential. That’s why making sure that your workplace has culturally inclusive leadership will be one of the most important transitions you make into the new globalized world.

Here are eight ways to help you make the transition to a multicultural leadership model.

A history lesson
You may be thinking, “Why can’t I simply hire new leaders from varying backgrounds and incorporate their leadership techniques into the entire organization?” Here’s why: Expanding the leadership at your organization into a multicultural form requires an understanding of how Eurocentric and hierarchical leadership became dominant in the first place. That means beginning with our society’s myths concerning the “settling” of America, which deny the historical contributions of communities of color.

For mainstream leaders, understanding the history that gave rise to ethnocentricity is perhaps the most difficult step in transforming leadership to an inclusive, multicultural form. You can’t just go to a seminar for a day and come out understanding why the old Eurocentric leadership models won’t work in a globalized world. You need to learn about these cultures to develop the clarity that allows you to incorporate multicultural leadership techniques into your organization.

Think we, not I
Today’s corporate world is an incredibly competitive place where the accepted motto seems to be “Every man for himself.” Bringing in multicultural leadership will put an end to this sometimes harmful way of thinking and will create a working environment where the focus is on mutual, not singular advancement. The Black, Latino, and American Indian leadership techniques that you will integrate into your organization originate from a collectivist culture. These cultures are usually more tightly woven and integrated than Eurocentric cultures, and as a result they cherish welfare, unity, and harmony.

To maintain these elements, people behave politely, act in a socially desirable manner, and respect others. People work for group success before personal credit or gain. There isn’t a business out there that won’t benefit from employees who identify themselves as part of a team and who, as a result, work together to make the entire company a great success.

Practice generosity, not greed
In communities of color, being generous is an expected leadership trait that indicates integrity and garners respect. How does this generosity show itself in the working world? I’ll use Latinos as an example. They have the highest percentage of participation in the U.S. labor market of any subgroup and are viewed as being great contributors at work. This reflects their value of generosity. They view work as an opportunity to share their talents and contribute to the welfare of the organization.

Just as employees are generous with their hard work, company leaders need to show generosity by paying employees fair wages. According to a 2002 study by Fortune, CEOs are making 241 times the average worker’s salary. This can’t happen in a company that practices multicultural leadership. Multicultural leaders aren’t greedy. They want the best for their employees. As a result, their employees are generous with their time and concern for customers.

Flatten your leadership structure.
Traditional leadership today, particularly in corporate America, is associated with fat salaries and mega bonuses, the big office, corporate jets, special parking places, and the numerous privileges that come with being in the top echelon. These types of perks create elitism that runs contrary to the principle of equality in the workplace, resulting in economic and social chasms between leaders and employees. Organizations would benefit from taking a more multicultural approach to leadership structure. Take the American Indians, for example. In their communal set up, everyone can be a leader because the members of their tribes are valued based on what they contribute to the community.

Today’s high-powered CEOs are known for what they take. But as the world flattens, successful companies will be those whose CEOs view themselves as just another part of the company and who value the expertise and innovation of their employees. Flattening the leadership structure will put you a step ahead of your competitors, because employees will feel appreciated and will work more easily together instead of getting hung up on a “You’re the boss” mentality.

Help people learn to work better together
No two people come from exactly the same background. Despite outward similarities, every employee, manager, or CEO is unique. Successful businesses are those that learn to accept the small differences that make us human and work together for the greater good of the organization. Latinos exemplify how this can work in the real world. They aren’t a “race” but an ethnic group bound together by the Spanish language, colonization, the Catholic Church, and the common values that stem from both their Spanish and indigenous roots.

Latino leaders, therefore, are challenged to forge a shared identity, vision, and purpose from a conglomerate of people who are joined together like pico de gallo—a Latino condiment that includes bite-size pieces of many spicy ingredients. They have to be consensus builders and integrate the many critical issues that touch people’s lives. Consensus building is a great way to strengthen any company’s work environment.

Minimize conflict by reminding employees that they truly are “family.”
Aside from heading up different projects and managing different departments, company leaders are expected to bring together employees who don’t get along. Any number of conflicts can arise in an office setting, and by using the right leadership techniques, you can alleviate conflict so that everyone works together (for the most part, at least) as one big, happy family.

In multicultural leadership, one step toward minimizing conflict is encouraging people to view each other as relatives. In the same way that viewing other members of society as relatives would reduce the likelihood of war and fighting, encouraging employees to view one another as family encourages them to seek out resolutions to their problems. It makes them feel a responsibility to find a way to coexist in order to benefit the company.

Foster a culture that’s accepting of spirituality
As a business owner, you might be reluctant to make a connection between spirituality and work, but it is possible to do it without stepping on anyone’s toes. As long as no one tries to force his or her faith on anyone else, the entire workplace is free to learn from one another and be inspired by the values that underline many faith traditions—hope, optimism, and gratitude—all factors that go hand in hand with a spiritual life. By encouraging employees to share their spiritual sides rather than compartmentalize them, you create a workplace where people bring their “whole selves” to work. You do this by example: be open about your own spiritual beliefs and activities and strike up conversations with employees about theirs (in a completely nonjudgmental way, of course). Your employees will quickly see that they are free to be themselves. As a result, they will be happier people—and happier people are more productive and creative.

When I was researching Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche tribe, pointed out to me that in American society, churches are one place, work is somewhere else, education is over there, and none of them relate to each other. She explained that for Indian people, spirituality is the integrating force of their lives and the essence of leadership. By encouraging spirituality in your employees, you can create even stronger bonds within the workplace and improve the ways in which your employees work together.

Focus employees on a company vision.
Almost every organization has a company motto or promise that is meant to inspire employees and assure customers that only the highest quality product or service will be coming their way—and if you don’t have one, you should come up with one right away. Does your company’s vision really represent the beliefs and attitudes of all of your employees?

In order to develop a company vision that truly reflects the diverse attitudes of your employees, think of it as a community vision. Listen to different points of view, communicate in an open, give-and-take fashion, and welcome new ideas. The shared vision that results will provide a focal point for people’s skills, talents, and resources. With that vision assuring them that their efforts will make a difference, people will be willing to assume a higher degree of risk and make greater sacrifices, which will translate to a company with harder working, more dedicated employees.

Businesses today understand the phenomenal growth in communities of color and want to access these lucrative and growing markets. Tapping the potential of the changing workforce, consumer base, and citizenry requires leadership approaches that resonate with and are representative of a much broader population base. Mainstream leaders must be able to use practices and approaches that are effective with the many cultures that make up the U.S. population.

Business leaders without significant experience within diverse cultures needn’t worry. People can develop affinities and sensitivities for a number of different cultures. Leaders can acquire multicultural competencies and work effectively with many different populations. The convergence of the leadership principles of diverse cultures with American business practices can create a socially responsible environment—one that underscores the role of business in supporting the welfare of our communities and our quality of life. If we can achieve this, the world will be a better place—to work in, to live in, and to bequeath to our children and to future generations.

Discuss

About The Author

Juana Bordas’s default image

Juana Bordas

Juana Bordas is president of Mestiza Leadership International in Denver and vice president of the board of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. She is a founder of Mi Casa Women’s Center and founding president and CEO of the National Hispana Leadership Institute. Bordas was initiated into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and honored as a Wise Woman by the National Center for Women’s Policy Studies. She recently served as advisor to Harvard’s Hispanic Journal on Public Policy and the Kellogg National Fellows Program. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Bordas received the Franklin Miller Award from the U.S. Peace Corps for her lifelong commitment to advancing communities of color and the Leadership Legacy Award from Spellman College’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement. Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age is her first book.