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.
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.
When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.
Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.
Types of Safety
Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.
Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.
I was at dinner with friends recently and, during the course of our mutual catching up, was told that I have the most spectacular stories. We’re all travelers in that group, both for work and for pleasure, so the fact that I seem to have the most unusual experiences of all of us is notable.
Here are the most memorable circumstances, occurrences, and happenstances from the past year or so:
I told a 20-something man to stop verbally berating an older woman who was struggling to lift her luggage. He looked as though he might strike me, and for a moment I was worried he would. He did not.
A ticketing agent argued with me about my name for 10 minutes. She called a “Joseph Haden Chomphosy” to the desk, and I was sure it was my name but had gotten cut-off. We resolved it with me saying “If you think that somewhere on the planet, there is both a Joseph AND a Josepha with my last name and they both just happen to be in this building at the same time, you have a lot more faith than I do.”
A passenger had a panic attack in the door of the aircraft and her service dog got loose and wandered around the cockpit.
I flew out of an airport that was so small it hadn’t started taking electronic tickets yet. To this day I am not sure how they managed to get me on the plane, because it wasn’t with a paper ticket.
I had a long conversation about the educational system and how it doesn’t properly account for populations that suffer from systemic inequality.
On an entirely different flight, I had a long conversation about racism, college application processes, and real estate.
Three times I have practiced an upcoming presentation on random strangers (because our flights were delayed).
I was sent through security three times in 15 minutes at the same airport. They tested the same bottle every time even though it had been marked by them already.
I have been transported by random, non-taxi cars by two separate travel companions and have lived to tell the tale.
Twice I have shown up to an airport, ticket in hand, and been told that I am not a ticketed passenger.
And I didn’t even travel that much last year.
I was recently told by an absolutely brilliant woman that the best place for observational research is an airport, because that’s when people are their most honest selves. But if I believed what airports have to say about me, you’d think I was the unluckiest traveler around. 🙂