Culturally Diverse Leadership

Following an invitation to speak at a conference for emerging leaders, this article is a developed version of the speech I gave at the dinner.


My parents grew up in extreme poverty in a tiny village as ethnic and religious minorities who experienced discrimination and the threat of violence and their identity and cultural heritage heavily controlled by politics. Both were only primary school educated and started work almost immediately since children were viewed as an economic asset unlike most of the western world where they are seen as a cost. They migrated to Australia in 1968 and worked in a labour-intensive environment with little English and a weak understanding of the education system.

They were in survival-mode.

They preserved their own experiences and so we worked alongside them as children spending months year after year picking tomatoes in regional Victoria. My siblings and I were isolated from any academic support because they could not read or write in English. I still hear echoes of my parents telling me to ‘hurry up’ and ‘work harder’ despite the heat and the pesticides and where any signs of vulnerability was viewed as a weakness.

In contrast, my parents also strongly reinforced social courtesy and respect, to always show kindness and follow the rules of hospitality that as a first-generation migrant I still find myself stunned when confronted by passive-aggressive elitism or ‘office politics’ because I unable to understand how people could be so rude, leaving me caught between two very conflicting realities.

As an emerging leader, I find these experiences to have shifted into an embedded professional practice that articulates a cultural continuum despite the sharp contrast between realities. I tell myself to ‘hurry up’ and ‘work harder’ because I was taught that if I fall over I should simply brush the dirt off and get on with it. I enjoy being alone and because I educated myself, I learnt to face all social challenges independently that strengthened my resilience to adversity.

My upbringing gave me a temperament to be reliable and see things through right to the end and to do so with integrity. It has also given me empathy and compassion and I love to listen to people and help them through their difficulties. I also understand the need for flexible working arrangements and how to manage time effectively rather than officiously.

I am learning to reach out or seek support when experiencing professional difficulties because I still struggle to understand how I feel when I encounter challenges. I also become confused when others are unable to take initiative to educate themselves or complete set tasks independently, reminding me to remember that not everyone is like me neither should I expect them to be.

It is true that Australia is a successful multicultural society that captures a very unique harmony within our diversity, but it also conceals the very painful truth that racism, discrimination and gender bias remains quite prevalent.

Women comprise of 46.9% of all employed persons in Australia and yet the full-time average weekly ordinary earnings for women are 14.1% less than for men?[i] Women only hold 13.7% of chair positions and 25.8% of directorships, and represent 17.1% of CEOs and 30.5% of key management personnel.[ii] How many of them are from an ethnically diverse background? In fact, how many leaders from either gender are from a CALD background? According to the Human Rights Commission’ Leading for Change report[iii], only 11 of 372 CEOs and senior executives of top Australian companies and departments were of non-European or Indigenous background.

Diversity in the workplace includes unique work styles that enables multiple perspectives and experiences to come together, encouraging a dynamic way to cultivate ideas and solve problems. It may not be aligned to a traditional hierarchy that reinforces a meritocratic homogeneity that is far easier but less innovative, multiculturalism teaches organisations to understand cultural insights and integrate a range of unique skills to improve productivity.

Recently my close friends invited me to a weekend with their family and I experienced Samoan singing and music, meetings that discussed family challenges and of course incredible food. I saw within that kinship a network built on trust and loyalty and where a problem faced by one person was a problem faced by the whole family, no matter how distant the relation. Indeed, the hospitality was so welcoming that I felt like I was a part of their family so imagine what a leader from a culturally diverse background could share and collaborate within an organisational framework.

According to Michel Foucault, culture can be viewed as a network of power and knowledge relations shaped largely by unknown clusters and yet connected together through discourse, making the unconscious mind structurally ethnographic since our psychology is shaped by society and our environment.[iv] When discourses are unconsciously accepted as ‘truth’ power becomes the source that regulates the network of interactions, just like men automatically acquire the position of authority in paternalistic cultures.

Masculine-vs-Feminine

These discourses are now mediated by sensory modalities that often tell people what they should think and this semiotic construction of reality is hard to isolate and identify. There are symbols that represent gender and signal categories of masculine and feminine qualities that we unconsciously accept and transfer to our understanding of leadership. Leaders are thus thought to be masculine and extroverted and so we feel the need to change ourselves to possess such qualities in order to explain our position.

What happens to me and my unique experiences? Is my cultural heritage suddenly wrong, too ugly or alien that I should hide it to prevent the fear that I am unfit for the role as leader? Or should I be provided with the mechanisms that enable me to understand and take the best parts of my experiences into the professional landscape?

The idea that our perceptions are regulated and simplified by hasty generalisations certainly frightens me and I often question how I can shift my learning to challenge the automaton within that normalises these socially constructed identities and hierarchies. Indeed, how do we become aware of our own prejudices?

We are taught to interpret and understand knowledge as hierarchical to save us from  the fear of losing control and so the unpredictability of multiculturalism can almost appear as a threat to homogeneity, to those simple straight lines that see the tall and charismatic white Australian man named ‘John’ overseeing and protecting us and giving us that familiar sense of security.

When we reward uniformity, we automatically give it power and therefore the responsibility rests with us to challenge socially constructed ideas. We can do that by creating the mechanisms that allow us to comfortably share knowledge and open dialogue that tackle tough questions and the challenge therefore is not the network or structure, but rather the culture.

A great organisational culture is one that has the fluidity to move between structures to enable efficiency and drive dynamism in communication that reinforces collaboration and the sharing of ideas and experiences. This agility prevents the decline toward autocratic power hierarchies that evoke a sense of familiarity and control but restrains diversity and innovation. It negotiates an upwardly mobile network of communication that allows one to develop the cultural mechanisms of exercising self-discipline and promoting dialogue to continuously challenge these unconscious prejudices. Culture is the responsibility of all staff and their awareness of these prejudices, therefore regular training and discussions should be a continuous practice shared across all organisational layers to blur those hierarchical lines.

According to research conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission with Deloitte, cultivating inclusiveness and diversity in the workplace increased the abilities of staff to innovate new and creative ideas.[v] They suggest a new business recipe for performance and productivity through the active facilitation of inclusiveness, whereby “[w]hen employees think their organisation is committed to, and supportive of diversity and they feel included, employees report better business performance in terms of ability to innovate, (83% uplift) responsiveness to changing customer needs (31% uplift) and team collaboration (42% uplift).”

While we cannot all analyse or even understand the historical and epistemological conditions of knowledge and the pedagogical influence that ultimately channels interpretations of these structures and networks, we can say in simple terms that what we learn is what we identify with and ultimately apply in practice. In order to challenge our prejudices, we need to learn to regulate our own ideas and emotions by holding ourselves accountable and this opens the door to change.

In The Practice of Integrity in Business, Simon Robinson writes: “[t]his would make reflective practice, enabling reflection of personal and professional development, the centre of pedagogy, developing a pedagogical style which focuses on the practice of responsibility and the virtues of learning.”[vi] Self-reflective practice does not simply end when we finish our schooling but rather it is a state of mind, a continuous process that identifies and critically appraises the impact of our values on the overall success in our work and relationships.

While it could be argued that Foucault’ ideas of power undermines self-reflective processes given that it places individuals at a disadvantage rather than hold organisations and structures accountable, as a mode of self-regulation and reflection it articulates individual responsibility for overall strategic success and therefore a source of individual empowerment. It can be a useful tool to mitigate future risks, open discussions on challenges that can collectively be resolved, and channel ideas of new and effective frameworks.

We need to be willing to improve and accept our faults, thus critical reflection becomes a tool that helps caution us from the risks of stereotyping and ethnocentrism, a willingness to accept our vulnerabilities and limitations and hold ourselves accountable for the possibility of error in our own judgements and ideas. This is across all organisational areas and we should do so in a shared and safe space with our colleagues.

There are no rules around leadership and we need to remember that before we start to revert back to comfortable and familiar ideas of what we think a leader is. Diversity is challenging because it challenges this familiarity where everything is easier and it awakens the responsibility we have to regulate our own behaviour and ideas. We each bring something unique to the table and like all people are responsible for confronting our personal challenges and prejudices to improve, but if there is one leadership quality that is universally required, it is accountability.

[i] ABS (2019), Labour Force, Australia, January 2019, cat. no. 6202.0 and ABS (2019), Average Weekly Earnings, Nov 2018, cat. no. 6302.0
[ii] WGEA (2018), Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard 2017-18
[iii] Australian Human Rights Commission, Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership (April 2018)
[iv] Jason Powell, Foucault, Power and Culture, “International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies” Vol 1:4 (2015). Also see:  http://www.massey.ac.nz/~alock/theory/foucault.htm
[v] Deloitte & Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance (2012)
[vi] Simon Robinson, The Practice of Integrity in Business, 268 (2016)