As a leader in the university setting, I seek to create the space and place to have open, sincere, and safe conversations about ourselves, our communities, and our world. Acknowledging our collective histories, both the positive and negative, while finding the space to dialogue and celebrate our differences, is no small task in the current environment. How people choose to engage is shaped by their past experiences and the stories that family, friends, and community have shared. All of these influence our thinking and behaviors about how to be with others in this world.
My way of thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion is to accept that our unique lived experiences are co-created. Our experiences belong not just to us, but to the ancestors who shaped them, the progeny who will inherit them, and the countless others whose lives run parallel to ours. To see how our individual experiences contribute to our shared, co-created experience, we must dialogue with ourselves, each other, our histories, and our futures. This work is intertwined with integrity, respect, and trust—the humanistic values that help us form a community of belonging. To learn, work, and live together, we must see and understand each other’s backgrounds and communities, hopes and dreams, fears and joys. We must know and build trust with each other. There is no shortcut. If I understand your journey, and you understand mine, we can co-create solutions to our challenges. When we value multiple perspectives, we create a community that values who we are as individuals—a community, in short, that values our diversity. Warren Bennis (2010) projected the notion that leadership can be no better than our understanding of each other and what motivates our behavior because leadership is about the connections among us and being in relation with others. My goal, therefore, is to help others see that anti-racist work is fundamental in any human-intensive institution, especially an educational organization.
My framework (In process) for change and consideration with integrity, inclusion, and influence captures this visually as an overview for the anti-racist work conducted at the organization (Fig. 2). This shows visually how complex and dynamic the process is for building a community that accepts responsibility to hold itself to the highest integrity toward roles, duties, missions, and goals. Figure 2 demonstrates that adaptive leadership occurs across all levels—self, organization, community, and society—simultaneously within many contexts and across diversity of individuals, while understanding human behavior at the core. For example, understanding, emotional intelligence, organizational justice, innovation, and good character (or, presented in leadership language, systemic, biological, service, and psychosocial perspectives like human resources/talent management) are basic competencies in management and leadership roles.
Ronald Heifetz developed the term adaptive leadership in his seminal book, Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994). In simple terms, adaptive leadership theory focuses on how people in power respond to changing environments, emphasizing the activity of the leader in relation to that of the employees. Gary Yukl and Rubina Mahsud (2010) contended that the need for adaptive leadership grows as the pace of change increases. Most traditional leadership models focus on a leader’s specific traits—their authoritativeness or charisma, for example. In this view, the characteristics that define leadership are fixed; one simply either is a leader or one is not. In other words, the traditional model sees leaders as born, not made. Heifetz’s view, by contrast, emphasizes not fixed characteristics, but adaptive capacities, focusing on the behaviors of a good leader (Northouse 2016).
Instead of mobilizing followers through fear and respect, an adaptive leader motivates others to “tackle tough challenges and thrive” (Heifetz et al. 2009, p. 14). The adaptive leadership model encourages effective change across multiple levels: self, organization, community, and society. This approach involves diagnosing, interrupting, and innovating to create capabilities that align with the aspirations of an organization.
How does the adaptive leadership model apply to the task of anti-racism? Challenges are difficult to identify and resolve through traditional channels. Since Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work is about ensuring that everyone is included, an institution that is committed to anti-racism must adapt to the appearance of new people, new identities, and new ways of being. An adaptive team understands that because people change, our environments must change with them. When employees are empowered to co-create solutions, they can bring their own unique experiences to the table, ensuring that solutions to problems will work for them and not just for those who have power under the traditional model. There is no way to make powerful, impactful, and sustainable changes with respect to equity and inclusion if we do not systemically address DEI issues through personal, professional, relational, and organizational structures, and strategize with integrity and trust. A leader’s actions, disposition, and way of being motivates others to take on leadership roles in their own way. The ability to bring your best authentic self to the work environment is what I also call a “sacred leadership space.” I have attempted to suggest this rich complexity and the systemic approach needed in Fig. 2.
My role as associate vice president coordinating Indiana University’s Anti-Racist Agenda involves a process of co-creating lived diverse experiences of building upon the practices, discipline, theories, and engagements necessary to address the hard questions about our “we-ness” in the 21st century. We want to have inclusive policies, practices, and procedures, along with a structure to hold individuals accountable—and we want it to be sustainable for future generations. Dialogue with ourselves, each other, our histories, and our futures is necessary to embrace the notion of an anti-racist organization. Therefore, being an individual led by appreciation for our collective human spirit, my leadership emerges from within to engage with care, integrity, and responsibility with all I encounter in the workplace.
Diversity and Inclusion as a Natural Expression of Mindfulness
In this context, my skills in mindfulness practice help me to stay grounded in the present and to offer what is needed as I work with multiple constituents across the university. Mindfulness, awareness, and emotional intelligence skills are tools I draw upon naturally due to years of practice. In formulating my role, I decided to stay detached from immediate outcomes, because changing minds, hearts, and culture takes time. I attempt to be mindful; therefore, I reminded myself to listen and learn and not make assumptions as I began this journey to lead and coordinate university efforts toward being an anti-racist organization. I had trust in the process and in my experience: Over and over, we will strategize together to co-create solutions and activities, to create spaces for courageous dialogues, and to provide opportunities for reflection about our collective work to be accomplished. I am fortunate to have a structure with professionals in DEI-related responsibilities to collaborate with across our nine campuses. Building on their experiences and success enhanced my efforts to coordinate our anti-racist efforts. The university has a history of supporting minoritized populations; it is not a perfect history but a commitment to social justice. Although considerable progress has been made in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, the prevailing practice continues to be that it is peripheral to the core operations of most institutions.
DEI work requires awareness and being mindful of our thoughts and actions as individuals and how they play out with others, how we serve others, how we treat others. This is at the center of serving our communities and constituents. To be generative, diversity, equity, and inclusion work requires serious discussion among those in power about dealing with those human differences that are intertwined with deep-rooted beliefs and values about our collective histories and ways of being (Watson, in progress). Conversations about race can feel too traumatic to address for many in our communities, because they have never had to think from multiple perspectives about themselves and the world (Watson, in progress). Yet, if we are going to move our society and institutions towards excellence, leaders and community members must directly address the things that we have been skirting around for the last seventy years in integrated public organizations. We must bring truth and light to issues of class, racism, power, and white supremacy: the way males of European origin systemically and strategically developed the United States to advantage whites over others.
In our current environment, I remind individuals that we cannot repeat our past practices related to DEI work in general – habits of the past are no longer wise and will not bring us closer to our objectives in the university. Our new reality requires community members and especially leadership to embrace deeper thinking and deeper ways of knowing about DEI issues. For example, when I work with various groups on strategies for solutions, as much as possible, I am fully present and come to each discussion and situation without predefined outcomes. I often remind groups that our histories are directly tied to current problems or race and economics. I encourage people to be mindful of their automatic responses and to pause before reacting. More importantly, I challenge them to be curious about why such a response is present and where it was learned. Asking them to pause before reacting while asking “What if I am interpreting something without understanding?” is just one way to bring mindfulness into the consciousness of groups. I encourage everyone I speak with to explore and be curious, because none of this matters if we are not personally committed to our own cultivation, professional development, and engagement in the organization to create a community where all individuals matter.
Therefore, I stress that DEI work of the future is the responsibility of all the university’s employees, groups, communities, and networks. We all have voices to be heard and understood with various pasts and backgrounds. One leader, a single office or unit, is not the way forward with the future of DEI: We need individuals who can approach life, work, and responsibility with openness and awareness.
Anti-racism is about the commitment to actively work to call out racism whenever and wherever one finds it. It is about examining the power imbalances between racialized people and non-racialized/white people, which results in unearned privileges that white people benefit from and racialized people do not (McIntosh 1988). Kendi (2019) put forth the perspective that to be an anti-racist individual or institution, one must engage in persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination. This is mindfulness and awareness at its simplest. We examine policies, practices, and procedures for bias language and assumptions across every area of all institutions. We ask ourselves whose perspectives are included and whose are left out of the work we are trying to accomplish as an organization.
Indiana University: Bringing an Anti-Racist Agenda Alive
The unique perspective that Indiana University has taken is to select someone with the interdisciplinary skillset to work across the institution and across multiple groups to cultivate a pathway to think about this work. It is important that I bring a practice/behavior for modeling how to dialogue, pause, listen, and cultivate members of the community. Indiana University purposefully wanted to identify someone who would be committed daily to thinking about this work, while having the skillset to work across the organization, exploring opportunities and holding discussions about what is possible with DEI. At the core of our anti-racism agenda, we stress that shifting leadership from hierarchies to more distributed decision making is key, in order to respond to diverse constituencies in ways that we have not before. If we reflect on what complex societies need in order to function and flourish, they need people to appreciate the contributions of those who are different, to honor each person, and to have structures that bring people together across their differences.
Helping individuals to understand the meaning of anti-racism, why we embrace building a community of belonging, and why it is everyone’s responsibility to be a part of an organization that is moving in this direction has not been difficult when individuals sincerely comprehend our intentions. Having individuals participate in discussions, questions, and strategies for their work environment and the ways of thinking and being that they need to be aware of has been very rewarding in this work. I have not had any significant moments of anger or frustrations in bringing this work into our collective consciousness. I also attempt to peel back all assumptions from the core of what needs to be realized; to make the complicated simple; to use facts and data versus untruths; so that we can truly see each other and acknowledge that we are all human with many limitations and gifts, and we can find a way together to create a community of belonging.
With all groups and individuals with whom I met this year, I tried to create a space of safety, trust, and openness about the work that needs to get done, while addressing all specific issues or perceived challenges. My role has been to be the one who thinks about this work daily and keeps us moving forward. As we work to build a community of belonging and an anti-racist organization at Indiana University, I ask, “What if we remember, with each person we meet, that they have unique perceived experiences, and we don’t know what those circumstances are or have been?” In today’s world, there are so many preferences and ways of being which are not binary but multiple—multiple identities or intersectionalities that are important—we should not make any assumptions about an individual’s background or identity until it is shared. In my current role, I often reference the four agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997) to remind individuals of how easy it is to misinterpret others’ behaviors and words: I encourage them to be mindful, pause before reacting, and remember we all have value and gifts to offer as humans.
As a leader, I make it a habit to ask each member of my team their perspective on issues and to close meetings by asking each member if they have any final thoughts. This practice helps to make sure that all views are heard and considered during the meeting. In addition, it also conveys to each team member that they are valued. If this is standard practice, each member will know that they matter regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. As I reflect on the skills needed to thrive in our diverse society today, given the trauma and drama that individuals experience, most of us need to enhance our skillset in mindfulness, emotional, and social intelligence if we are to be more effective with the world’s diversity and workforce. In a recent study by Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (2020), of 955 global leaders in 59 countries, emotional intelligence was listed by 85% as an essential skill needed for the future. Self-awareness and self-management are two of the emotional intelligence skills most related to mindfulness.
How then do we invite those who have been left out to join us in a sincere way that changes our work and environment to be inclusive? As a university, we are engaged in bringing this mindset into all of our practices, from recruiting faculty, staff, and students to our partnerships in multiple communities. If we stop and think and acknowledge that while I am here, you are here, and we are together in this place, at this moment, we can also ask whether there is anything we might do together to make life better for us and the world that would mean less suffering. In this context, anti-racism is an act of opening oneself up through self-reflection and self-awareness to the infinite possibilities of sharing humanity with all human beings around the planet. The practice contributes in a tangible way to building community, trust, and openness, because it conveys that other opinions and perspectives matter to us. This brings us full circle back to the importance of mindfulness and spirituality, both of which are essential to our sacredness as humans.
We must remember that leadership is a process of becoming. There is no specific set of strategies for being an effective leader. According to the Paradigm of Cultivation for leadership, people become who they are through their engagement with the world around them (Biesta 2019). This model is reminiscent of John Dewey’s (1917) theory of reflective learning. When we reflect on an experience, we learn not only what we did in the past (our histories), but how we might consequently change our future behavior and the world around us. Thus experience is always futural: “What should experience be,” Dewey asked, “but a future implicated in a present!” (1917, p.12). Or to think of this another way, how might I be present, silent, gentle and sacred in my role and responsibility as manager and leader? Creating spaces for reflecting on our experiences shapes our future, our work environments, and our society. This Deweyan notion is central to anti-racist work and humanistic management. By continually reflecting on constantly changing social environments, we can help to shape them. Lawrence and Pirson (2015) reiterated that “not only is the job of the leader in the twenty-first century much more complex, it also requires much higher levels of political insight and reflective capacity” (p.383).
A reflective leader therefore spends time getting to understand themselves (personal), their workers (the relational), and the organization (structural) while creating an environment where all feel welcome to engage in difficult conversations (as depicted in Fig. 2). Domènec Mele (2003) called such leadership “humanistic management:” that is, leadership that emphasizes human needs and experiences. For Mele, humanistic management requires understanding that the work environment is a real community of persons where unity and favoring the acquisition of human virtues is of the essence. When we do this, we can achieve a higher moral quality within leadership and across organizations. By contrast, individuals who depend on traditional principles of leadership and ignore the changing context of our times face a difficult and uncertain future (Fullan 2006, Fullan and Scott 2009, Schon 1990).