How it is that some organizations have diverse leadership teams while others seem to only have leaders who look, act, and talk the same? I once heard an executive leader of a 25,000-person organization located in a very diverse metro area in the U.S. say that while they believed in women in leadership, they couldn’t find any qualified enough in their organization. Somehow, I highly doubt that to be entirely true.
Creating organizational environments where diversity thrives at all levels actually begins with better understanding ourselves.
A critical factor for engaging in authentic leadership is understanding one’s own “social identity.” Social identity is understood as the nonprofessional parts of a person’s life that simultaneously play critical roles in each person’s life. It has to do with group memberships like gender, nationality, race, native language, generation, etc. These are aspects of a person’s life that no one chooses, they simply are. Social identity is not only fundamental to we are, it also shapes how we view ourselves and others.
When an organization’s leadership construct is heavily influenced by the dominant group’s social identity, it will be difficult (read “pretty impossible”) for someone with a different social identity to be viewed as a viable leader and promotable. One of the requirements for getting promoted are the experiences we have, especially the challenging ones that are crucial for leadership development. Not surprising, studies show that nondominant groups receive less opportunities for challenging assignments.
Leadership development is made up of formal (10%) and informal development (90%) opportunities. Formal development includes workshops and trainings used to pass along organizational knowledge and skills. Informal development opportunities incorporate mentors and coaches, challenging assignments, feedback processes and self-development activities.
The subconscious tendency for most people is to identify with others who think, act, and talk like them. When social identity dynamics are left unchecked in organizations, their leadership development systems promote the dominant groups’ characteristics over nondominant groups (typically women and minorities).
Ignoring social identity as an integral aspect of leadership has organizational and individual consequences. Organizationally, it leads to the loss of:
· human capital
· identity capital
· diversity capital, and
· ultimately the loss of social capital.
Individually, it can cost leaders their own authenticity and effectiveness. To ask someone to be someone else is to miss out on their individuality and uniqueness that makes them who they are. The best leaders fully integrate their whole selves into their leadership roles and harness the potential of their uniqueness.
The reality is that in order to promote people from social groups other than our own, we have to first accept and recognize that there are aspects of our own identities that are fundamental to who we are, as well as how we see ourselves and others around us. When we start here, we can begin to appreciate others for who they truly are and appreciate the uniqueness they bring to the table (if we invite them).
 Munusamy, V. P., Ruderman, M. N, & Eckert, R. H. (2010). Leader development and social identity. In E. Van Velsor, C. D. McCauley, & M. N. Ruderman (Eds.) Handbook for leadership development (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons (pp. 147-175), 147-8.