What does a leader look like?


Has this ever happened to you? You were in a group—it could have been as a kid on the playground, as an adult in a meeting, or at any point in between—and you made a suggestion: “Let’s do X.” And it was a good suggestion. But everyone just kind of hemmed and hawed; no one jumped onboard. The idea got dropped.

Then sometime later, in the same group, someone else—someone who, for whatever reason, seemed to be the accepted leader of the group—made the same suggestion: “Let’s do X.” First one person agreed, then another, then everyone else jumped onboard. And boom: the group had made a decision, and the action was taken.

Why did the group accept the idea from that person and not you? The social sciences tell us humans are pack animals; we work best when we have an inspiring leader to follow. Where we often get tripped up, it seems, is in deciding—often based on history or appearances rather than merit or innovative ideas—who the leader is. Often, we rely on the people we have traditionally relied on—and that leaves out too many important voices.

Our nation seems to have decided long ago who the leaders were, and by and large, they have been members of the “majority”—straight, white, wealthy males. In recent decades, the demographics of the United States have shifted to such an extent that it can be argued that no one group has a majority anymore. But our leadership profile has not changed all that much.

While it is true that many corporate, educational, and governmental institutions have gone to great lengths to promote diversity—and some surely do a great job of hiring and promoting employees from traditionally underrepresented groups—there still seems to be a lack of diversity in the leadership ranks. Walk into any convention of thought leaders and executives, in almost any profession, and with a small number of exceptions, you will still see a vast expanse of white, male faces.

Leaders from different backgrounds have different experiences, ideas, and perspectives than others, which result in ideas and actions others might never have thought of.

Diversity among not just rank-and-file employees but among leadership is critically important, not only because it is equitable and just but because leaders from different backgrounds have different experiences, ideas, and perspectives than others, which result in ideas and actions others might never have thought of. Leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups will have points of view that many in the majority could not even imagine.

A case in point: On June 2, Yvette E. Pearson, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE—who is the associate dean for accreditation, assessment, and strategic initiatives at Rice University in Houston, the chair of ASCE’s Members of Society Advancing an Inclusive Culture (MOSAIC), and the host of the podcast Engineering Change—wrote a profound and moving piece for ASCE News titled “I Can’t Breathe and This is Why”. She wrote the piece in response to the killing in Minneapolis on May 25, of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd begged for his life and pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Video of the incident sparked daily protests nationwide and globally against the tragedy and a host of other, similar racial injustices. (The protests were still ongoing as this issue went to press in mid-June.)

In her article, Pearson recounts difficult life experiences as a black woman that many of us have never had. She tells of being stopped by the police for no reason other than the color of her skin and of her brother having a gun held to his head by a white police officer who gave him no citation or reason for stopping him as he drove. She recalls teaching her then-3-year-old daughter not to open her purse in a store because, as a black person, even a very young one, she might be suspected of stealing if she did. She described having to teach her growing child how to react to the police if she was ever stopped, so as to maximize the chances of not being shot by them.

Pearson’s experiences are as common in the black community as they are inconceivable in the white one. And they are a perfect example of why we need a true diversity of voices, experiences, cultures, and points of view in every company and institution and in every profession—and at every level of leadership. We don’t know what we don’t know. And the only way we can learn is by ensuring that our leaders are drawn from a genuinely diverse pool.

This column first appeared in the July/August issue of Civil Engineering.

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