Leadership Diversity: Go Big, or Go Home

This story originally appeared on the blog of the Surge Institute. I'm sorry for the light posting in the last month, but I've been hard at work on a somewhat broader endeavor. More on that soon ...

Years ago, I was at a community meeting in Washington D.C. I was working for the school system, and we were discussing a plan to consolidate two elementary schools. The plan included new academic supports for the combined school, teacher professional development, and some serious renovations to the newly enlarged building.

There was a problem, though. An older woman approached the microphone at the meeting and pointed out what I and the other bureaucrats in the system had missed. The consolidation would require many students, some quite young, to cross a dangerous four-lane intersection. In order for the plan to pass muster, she suggested, it must include a crossing guard, at the very least, and the school system had not accounted for that expense in its plans.

Encounters like this are common in the public sector, and they are not rare in the private sector. Often, the individuals responsible for implementing a strategic plan are not the intended beneficiaries of that plan. As a result, their life, professional, and family experiences can be wildly different from those of their constituents or customers. Fortunately, the crossing guard incidence was an easy fix. Part-time traffic policing, while a critical element of public safety, is relatively inexpensive, and the system was able to make quick changes to the plan.

The issues, though, are not always so easy to confront, fix, or acknowledge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Chicago right now. The city’s leadership, from the mayor to the dismissed police chief to the rank-and-file officers in the police department, were complicit in preventing the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder from being released to the public for over a year. Critics, including the New York Times, suggest that the mayor hoped to prevent the video from affecting his February re-election, which it almost certainly would have.

Though this example is extreme, it is not uncommon, as police brutality affects many children and families, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, from Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Rekia Boyd, another Chicagoan who died too young. What is unique about Laquan McDonald’s tragic death is that it illuminates the extent to which city leaders can put politics and self-interest over the wellbeing of a community. McDonald’s family is mourning, and the city, particularly its Black residents, demanded answers. The public safety of Chicagoans, though, took a backseat to political self-interest.

Would greater diversity in leadership have prevented this from happening? Maybe not alone, but it’s hard to argue that greater representation from people in McDonald’s community would have resulted in the same reckless disregard for bringing his killers to justice.

Self-interest is a natural phenomenon. So is taking care of one’s own community. Leadership should be about transcending that parochial interest and taking a magnanimous approach to communities that one doesn’t even consider one’s own. Despite good intentions, it is difficult for leaders to understand the authentic needs, desires, hopes, fears, and aspirations of a community from which they do not come. That’s why diversity in leadership is so important. Is it reasonable for me to expect Mayor Rahm Emanuel to have inherent lived experiences that captures the full range of every one of his citizens’ lives? No. Is it reasonable for me to expect that the mayor will carefully consider the unique needs of his Black citizens, who constitute a full third of the city’s population? Yes, and the best way to ensure this consideration is to have a diverse leadership team, particularly in a police department with a notorious history of racial abuse and violence.

I share The Surge Institute’s perspective on leadership diversity, which can be summarized simply as “Go big or go home.” Having diverse leadership at the top requires having diverse candidates at every level of an organization. In a civic milieu, that means working hard at diversity from the mayor’s office to the beat cops, and everything in between. In the private sector, that means from the boardroom to the mailroom, including suppliers and partners. There are tons of bureaucratic, oblique ways to increase diversity, but the easiest way to increase diversity it to hire people from many different backgrounds. It really is that easy. While leadership diversity alone would not have saved Laquan McDonald’s life, it certainly would have meant a shorter wait for justice.