White Men Can’t Lead (Everyone)

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Staff

In an age of ever increasing globalization, the world isn’t just getting flatter; it is also becoming more colorful and diverse. If your company is still leading the "old" (read "white, male, authoritarian") way, it’s making a big mistake, says Juanas Bordas, author of the new book Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007).

Bordas writes: "Today's leadership models, although they may differ from person to person and method to method, generally have a common bias toward Western- or European-influenced ways of thinking. We're leading as if our companies are filled only with white men and, quite clearly, that's no longer the case. Contemporary leadership theories exclude the enormous contributions, potential learning, and valuable insights that come from leaders in diverse communities."

In her book, Bordas maintains that the most successful businesses will be those that incorporate the influences, practices, and values of diverse cultures in a respectful and productive manner. "Multicultural leadership encourages an inclusive and adaptable style that cultivates the ability to bring out the best in our diverse workforce and to fashion a sense of community with people from many parts of the globe," says Bordas. "It enables a wide spectrum of people to actively engage, contribute, and tap their potential. That's why making sure that your workplace has culturally inclusive leadership will be one of the most important transitions you make into the new globalized world."

Bordas presents eight ways to ease the transition to a multicultural leadership model:

  1. Get a history lesson. You may be thinking: Why can't I simply hire new leaders from varying backgrounds and incorporate their leadership techniques into the entire organization? Here's why: expanding the leadership at your organization into a multicultural form requires an understanding of how Eurocentric and hierarchical leadership became dominant in the first place. That means beginning with our society's myths concerning the "settling of America," which deny the historical contributions of communities of color. For mainstream leaders, understanding the history that gave rise to ethnocentricity is perhaps the most difficult step in transforming leadership to an inclusive, multicultural form. You need to learn about these cultures in order to develop the clarity that allows you to incorporate multicultural leadership techniques into your organization.
  2. Think we, not I. Today's corporate world is an incredibly competitive place where the accepted motto seems to be "every man for himself." Bringing in multicultural leadership will create a working environment where the focus is on mutual, not singular advancement. The black, Latino, and American Indian leadership techniques that you integrate into your organization originate from collectivist cultures that are usually more tightly woven and integrated than Eurocentric cultures. As a result they cherish welfare, unity, and harmony. There isn't a business out there that won't benefit from employees who identify themselves as part of a team and who, as a result, work together to make the entire company a great success.
  3. Practice generosity, not greed. In communities of color, being generous is an expected leadership trait that indicates integrity and garners respect. Just as employees are generous with their hard work, company leaders need to show generosity by paying employees fair wages. According to a 2002 study, CEOs are making 241 times the average worker's salary. This can't happen in a company that practices multicultural leadership. Multicultural leaders are not greedy. They want the best for their employees. As a result, their employees are generous with their time and concern for customers.
  4. Flatten the leadership structure. Traditional leadership, particularly in corporate America, is associated with huge perks that create elitism, which results in economic and social chasms between leaders and employees. Organizations would benefit from taking a more multicultural approach to leadership structure. Take the American Indians, for example. In their communal setup, everyone can be a leader because the members of their tribes are valued based on what they contribute to the community. As the world flattens, successful companies will be those whose CEOs view themselves as just another part of the company and who place value in the expertise and innovation of their employees. Workers will feel more appreciated and will work more easily together instead of getting hung up on a “the boss vs. the rest of us” mentality.
  5. Help people learn how to work together. No two people come from exactly the same background. Despite outward similarities, every employee, manager, or CEO is unique. Successful businesses learn to accept the small differences that make us human and work together for the greater good of the organization. Latinos exemplify how this can work in the real world. They are not a "race" but an ethnic group bound together by the common values that stem from both their Spanish and indigenous roots. Latino leaders, therefore, are challenged to forge a shared identity, vision, and purpose from a conglomerate of people who are joined together like pico de gallo—a Latino condiment that includes bite-size pieces of many spicy ingredients. They have to be consensus builders and integrate the many critical issues that touch people's lives.
  6. Create a sense of "family." Any number of conflicts can arise in an office setting, and by using the right leadership techniques, leaders can alleviate conflict so that everyone works together (for the most part, at least) as one big, happy family. In multicultural leadership, one step toward minimizing conflict is encouraging people to view each other as relatives. It makes them feel a responsibility to find a way to coexist in order to benefit the company as a whole.
  7. Foster a culture that's accepting of spirituality. Executives might be reluctant to make a connection between spirituality and work, but it is possible to do it without stepping on anyone's toes. As long as no one tries to force his or her faith on anyone else, the entire workplace is free to learn from one another and be inspired by the values that underline many faith traditions—hope, optimism, and gratitude. By encouraging employees to share their spiritual sides rather than compartmentalize them, you create a workplace where people bring their "whole selves" to work. When I was researching my book, LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche tribe, pointed out to me that in American society, churches are one place, work is somewhere else, education is over there, and none of them relate to each other. She explained that for Indian people, spirituality is the integrating force of their lives and the essence of leadership. By encouraging spirituality in your employees, you can create even stronger bonds within the workplace and improve the ways in which your employees work together.
  8. Focus employees on a company vision. Almost every organization has a company mission statement that is meant to inspire employees and assure customers that the goal is to provide the highest quality product or service. But does your company's vision really represent the beliefs and attitudes of all of your employees? Listen to different points of view, communicate in an open, give-and-take fashion, and let people know that their ideas are welcome. When employees feel that their efforts will make a direct contribution to the company vision, they are willing to assume a higher degree of risk and make greater sacrifices, which will translate to a company with harder working, more dedicated employees.

In conclusion, Bordas says, “Mainstream leaders must embrace practices and approaches that are effective with the many cultures that make up the U.S. population. However, business leaders without significant experience with diverse cultures needn't worry. People can develop affinities and sensitivities for a number of different cultures. Leaders can acquire multicultural competencies and work effectively with many different populations. The convergence of the leadership principles of diverse cultures with American business practices can create a socially responsible environment—one that underscores the role of business in supporting the welfare of our communities and our quality of life. If we can achieve this, the world will be a better place—to work in, to live in, and to bequeath to our children and to future generations."

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.