Diversity Is Important, But You’ve Got To Free It. Here’s How

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The smartest move for leaders today is to use their greatest intelligence of all.

Much has been made of the necessity, in truth the requirement, that in this new, more volatile, and deeply uncertain world in which we live and work, leadership must change. While it is often given the greater emphasis, the need for change isn’t just the complex, often ambiguous environment in which leaders must now operate. The human dynamic has changed too.

Employees today have a voice and power as never before. In both direct and indirect ways, they are demanding a greater seat at the leadership table. They want, and expect, to take part of how the organization operates, from the way we work is structured and carried out, to defining, shaping, and giving greater priority to workplace culture. Be it the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, or the now frequent demand to merge personal priorities with workplace ones, the signs are many and strong that workers can no longer be expected to just show up to a workplace designed by someone else, they expect to define their workplace. The broad awareness and pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is one powerful reflection of this demand for a leadership voice. Yet remarkably, what’s far too often under-valued in conversations around DEI is this: while employees are rightfully demanding equity and inclusion, it is the diversity of their experiences, skills, and intelligences upon which the future of successful leadership will depend. They may not know it, but today’s senior leaders have the opportunity to employ the most important intelligence of all to tap that potential: the intelligence of teaching.

In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner proposed an at the time groundbreaking idea, that there is more than one way in which human beings were intelligent, sensed things, ideated, and most important of all, innovated and adapted to an ever-changing world. He called it the theory of multiple intelligences. For decades before Gardner’s proposed his theory, intelligence was defined narrowly. Gardner argued that human intelligence isn’t limited to, for example, just the logical or linguistic forms that schools, intelligence tests, and workplaces tend to emphasize, but also includes intelligence in areas such as inter and intrapersonal intelligence, spatial awareness and smarts, and even bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

In hindsight, Gardner was only stating what we all instinctively know, that humans find their way and find their advantage through a much more complex set of aptitudes and abilities. Yet Gardner went a step further. He postulated that all these forms of human intelligence exist within us all. According to Gardner, we sometimes think of intelligence more narrowly because in practice we often end up favoring one or a few forms of intelligence over the others or, as in the case of most organizations, because of an overemphasis on certain intelligences over others. What the research around these ideas tells us clearly – as does our own experience, is that everything from problem-solving and innovation, to empathy and emotional intelligence relies on not just one but a diversity of intelligences to thrive. The business success record of the past two decades is equally clear – the more leaders encourage and empower diversity and its accompanying intelligences, the higher the likelihood of their organization’s success, not to mention their own. Even with what we know, Gardner suggests there is more, and here’s where leaders ought to take note.

Gardner originally proposed eight forms of human intelligence, but in recent years he has suggested more core intelligences exist, including one that may be the most pivotal of all: teaching intelligences, which Gardner describes as our human ability to impart ideas to others, in turn empowering their own diverse abilities. The relevance to today’s leaders is this: though more traditionally emphasized forms of intelligence like logic and language matter a great deal, teaching is the connector intelligence. Both by their elevated position and the very nature of their role in organizations, senior leaders have the greatest opportunity to both teach and enable others to lead.

It’s something we don’t really talk about enough. Many argue (myself included) that leadership should be seen as cultural and collective. We make the case that expecting and empowering every person to step up to their unique abilities to lead is the difference maker in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. Yet we stop just short of reminding those in the lead that they have a vital role to play beyond these things – the role of teacher. As much as leaders can support diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations, they must actually teach leadership. That’s what truly frees the inherent power of diversity. Teaching leadership is what allows this indispensable asset to become not only the key to success in an uncertain world, but to become an organization’s chief competitive advantage.