For no fewer than three years, my twitter bio has included the statement “I’m bad at writing recipes, great at cooking the food.” When I set out to define my leadership philosophy, I didn’t realize how true that statement would be.
I’ve been guiding and advising future leaders for many years, as a mentor and overall advocate, and my advice hasn’t changed much in that time. My concept of good leadership is informed by being a woman in a male-dominated field, a person of color in a primarily white-dominated world, and a general faith in the power of a good-hearted group of people.
I walk past a middle school at lunch every day. Most days we all just carry on with our own work (mine: dog walking, theirs: game playing), but today was different.
As I walked by the school yard, one of the kids kicked a ball over the fence and across the street. She asked if I would throw it back over, apologizing a lot as she did. It’s no real burden for me, so I retrieved it and threw it back over.
Another student asked if I could help retrieve a second ball, and then a third (there wasn’t a fourth). Again, not a problem, so I returned those balls as well. And then he said this:
“You’re so generous! Thank you! If I could pay you $100 I would, but I don’t have any money. Your dog is beautiful and healthy. Have a good day!”
Now, I can’t be sure of what drove him to have that little interaction with me. But I would like to imagine it’s a mixture of these things:
Having a very high valuation of time.
Having a very low valuation of a dollar.
Having an innate sense for the existence of reciprocity.
Which then led him to decide that, knowing that he needed to pay for the use of my expensive time, a compliment to my dog was worth $100.
Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.
Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.
Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.
Illustration: Design vs Development
As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.
A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:
unencumbered by deadlines
value form over function
A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:
unencumbered by manners
value function over form
Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.
These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.
Take 6 has been one of my favorite musical groups my entire life. I used to listen to their debut album on cassette tape. I recently had the good luck to see a live concert of theirs and I have never had more fun! This…
The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.
But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls . Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.