Managing Diversity: The 21st Century Leadership
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…”
THE world we live in is deeply fractured. The smallest of human differences are creating gulfs of problems and violence. We see this in the Middle East, where minor divergences in religious beliefs are turning vast portions of that historical home of great civilisations into killing fields. We see this, as well, in the United States and parts of Europe, where ideological differences are making governance an increasingly tedious affair. In Africa, ethnic schisms and nepotism are major clog in the wheel of our collective progress. What these point to is that the world is in dire need of leaders with a demonstrable will and capacity to remove the dividing lines – 21st century leaders with the ability to manage diversity.
There is great strength in diversity. Our differences in culture, language, history and experience hold distinct advantages that can be of great benefit to the collective good, when allowed to flourish. Management experts agree that diversity increases organisational effectiveness. It lifts morale, brings greater access to new segments of the marketplace, and enhances productivity. Diversity management, experts also agree, is the key to growth in today’s fiercely competitive global marketplace; an assertion that is equally true for nations. It was John F. Kennedy who said, “The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed, but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.”
It would seem natural to be suspicious, fearful and even oppressive of people who are different from us. And this has been one of the evils plaguing modern society, the bane of under-developed countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. So, if there is any one quality that will define the 21st century leader, more than the pursuit of economic stability, it is the ability to promote an understanding between the divergent groups that make up society, with the aim of harnessing the inherent power in the varied perspectives and approaches to life.
Giving every group a sense of belonging by ensuring opportunities to contribute to the collective growth and development of the system is critical. This does not suggest lowering the standard, but rather believing that every group has something of value to bring to the table and deserves to be represented. This calls for the delicate balance between merit and equity; an all-inclusive leadership style. The truth is that most of the problems we have experienced in sub-Saharan Africa have been the result of certain people or groups (tribe, class, religion, cults, etc.) holding on to the reins of power to the exclusion of others and in some cases, oppressing others.
Even when there are legal frameworks that mandate equal representation, like Nigeria’s federal character law, unless our leaders imbibe this spirit and philosophy, there will still be problems. If there is anything our change philosophy, at this time, must embrace, it is this ideal. Nigeria’s greatest opportunity, therefore, is not in oil but in its diversity; in the rainbow of cultures, languages, religion, and experiences that characterise this nation. Maximising this opportunity will require breaking away from the culture of suspicion, nepotism and violence that has been the resultant bane of our differences. Leadership at every level must, therefore, recognise the lines that divide us and actively work to eliminate them. In the words of Hilary Clinton “what we have to do is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities”.