International development organizations tout their commitment to diversity and inclusion as core to their mission, seeking to bridge lines of geography and difference. And yet, too many organizations are stuck in a single leadership archetype trap, leading to missed diversity gains and talent flight that compromise this agenda.
“Speak up more.” Early in my career, this is what I consistently wrote in performance reviews. As an Asian woman, I struggled to do that. I’d rehearse words in my head and then try to find a respectful moment to interject — but having a tendency to wait too long between comments, due to my cultural values, I usually missed my opportunity.
My parents were immigrants to the United States, and I was raised with traditional Japanese values: honoring elders, listening intently, displaying humility, and not calling attention to myself. Those values served me well in school, where I was seen as a model student. In the workplace, however, my quiet, reflective nature prevented me from being seen as a leader.
To be sure, there are certain things all leaders need to be able to do: articulate and advance a vision, ensure excellent execution and achievement of outcomes, and more. This isn’t about changing expectations of the outcomes; it is about broadening how those outcomes are achieved.
Imagine a bull's-eye target with a yellow circle at the center. The inner circle is the widely held notion of leadership, shaped heavily by white, male, Western leadership models: assertive and inclined toward bold action and individual decision-making. Those who have natural tendencies that happen to align with the inner circle are seen as leaders, too.
Those in the next ring are adjacent to the inner circle. Their natural style isn’t quite that of the widely held notion, but they are seen as having potential.
When people don’t have to contort themselves to fit into a stylized notion of leadership, they bring forth valuable contributions you’d otherwise miss.—
Those whose styles happen to be in outer rings? They are likely getting a mountain of feedback to help them become more like the inner circle, making them feel less valued and like they don’t fit in. For global aid organizations, this may be the experience of some in-country talent, those in the global south, and those from racial and ethnic backgrounds different from the dominant group.
Instead of trying to get everyone to converge into such a narrow view of leadership, we can expand the leadership bull's-eye, internally and externally.
Evaluate the outcome over the approach. Consider not whether someone’s approach to the work is similar to yours or fits with your vision of leadership but whether they achieved the desired outcomes. Apply this approach in how job descriptions are written, promotions decided, community partners selected, and aid grants given.
Perhaps their style of “leading from behind” enabled a successful change initiative. Maybe their ability to create psychologically safe environments surfaced more perspectives leading to stronger decision-making and impact on the ground. Keep the emphasis on the what while being open to the how.
Only 3% of charity CEOs are from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups. Among Fortune 500 companies, there are more CEOs named James than there are women CEOs. The current bull's-eye is too small. Find ways to amplify what is unique to the individual, rather than pushing them to fit the mold.
When identifying potential successors, consider not who would be the best fit but who might add to or challenge the team the most. Many global companies and international development agencies have long relied on expats. There is an opportunity to continue to grow the proportion of leaders from the countries they are seeking to aid. Identify the missing perspectives and bring in the experience and expertise grounded in and from the community.
Challenge the status quo in key processes. International development must shake up processes to achieve true returns on increasing diversity. Go out of your way to make space for difference, demonstrate that multiple archetypes are valued, and build checks into processes. At the end of internal reviews or external processes to select aid partners, how many times were “style,” “presence,” “experience,” or “approach” concerns cited?
Deepen knowledge about unconscious bias, including similarity bias — how we tend to value people and traits more like us — and the “double bind” — a no-win situation for women leaders, particularly women of color, who are either seen as competent or likable but rarely both.
Consider a self-audit. What type of feedback do you find yourself giving, and to whom? How do the expectations you have for others stem from your own idea of what constitutes leadership and presence? Where do these notions come from, and how might you expand your views to tap into the broad range of talent on your teams?
When people don’t have to contort themselves to fit into a stylized notion of leadership, they bring forth valuable contributions you’d otherwise miss. Instead of wasting time and energy trying to be someone different, they focus on contributing work and ideas grounded in their own unique power, creating competitive advantage, and maximizing impact for global organizations.
Now, instead of stressing about speaking up, I leverage my unique leadership capabilities to drive successful outcomes, leaning into areas that make me uniquely who I am, grounded in my cultural values. I listen and make connections others might not see. I combine strategic thinking with understanding of relationship dynamics to help us get from point A to point B.
We can each take action to show people that they can succeed, advance, and be held up as model leaders with a wide range of means, styles, backgrounds, and orientations. Let’s remain clear on the end outcomes we are striving for — and open to how one achieves those.