Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the senior levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us. But we would not follow them.
In my previous blog on perceptions of safety in the workplace during the pandemic, I emphasized the importance of accommodating the natural fears that restrictive physical safety measures elicit among all of us. For leadership, this accommodation includes the acknowledgment of those fears—the consoling admission that, almost universally, we feel resistance toward restrictive measures. It also requires hyper-clarity: repeated, thorough explanations of any measure taken to ensure physical safety in the workplace. Finally, leaders should recognize individuals and teams who successfully follow those measures in order to encourage a broader sense of solidarity during a frightening time.
I want to focus now on accommodation more generally, reaching beyond our current health crisis. As Simon Sinek notes, we grudgingly abide by authority, but we willingly follow leaders. One of the qualities of an authoritarian, of course, is the insistence on uniformity—an abject lack of inclusiveness. Insecure leaders might defend their actions by saying that we are in the workplace to work, not litigate our beliefs.
I view this inflexibility, however, as a fearful response that fails to inspire or foster morale. Diversity offers great resources to an organization and should be celebrated and encouraged, not stifled. We are hired as unique individuals, and leaders should leverage this uniqueness through open communication, transparency, and recognition. Diversity is a rich commodity.
Leaders need to include different backgrounds and beliefs, not suppress them. This stance models tolerance for the rest of the workforce and reassures employees that they are safe as distinct individuals in the organization. If we exclude anything, it should be intolerance.
Insecure leadership insists on measures without providing reasons, assumes each employee can robotically conform, ignores potentially useful input from reports, and disregards the need for trust and openness up and down the hierarchy. Such rigidity serves no long-term, practical value; rather, it’s wasteful and unkind, harming individuals as well as the bottom line.
An organization lives and dies by its employees’ level of investment, which, in turn, depends on morale. In an ideal workplace, a transgender woman of color should feel as safe as a cisgender white male. What’s more, she should feel she has just as many opportunities for growth within the organization. This trust in mutual opportunity will build camaraderie among employees from different backgrounds.
Rather than suppressing difference—or expecting people to magically suspend their uniqueness while at work—leadership should instead foster inclusion while making clear there’s no place in the organization for discrimination, bullying, or scapegoating. Any criticism should be constructive and strictly relate to work performance, not personal differences. Inclusion fosters professional growth, making people feel safe—and thus more creative, invested in the organization, and open to offering productive suggestions.
In a difficult and polarizing period of history, our differences can seem dangerous or divisive. However, at our core, we all want to feel connected, seen, and appreciated. A well-led organization offers a powerful model for bridging differences, leveraging diversity, and finding greater social harmony without resorting to rigid, suppressive authority. The beauty of inclusive leadership and organizational culture is the more we cooperate, the more we achieve.