Leading diverse teams: worth the struggle

During a recent Chicago visit that included breakfast with students and alumni at Spertus Institute, newly elected University of Haifa President, Amos Shapira, was asked to reflect on a leadership lesson he learned in business that is pertinent for his new post in academe. Shapira, who formerly served as the Managing Director of El Al Airlines and of Cellcom Israel, Ltd., wasted no time in focusing on the value of building multicultural teams, which, he says, almost always outperform traditional ones. Among other things, this conviction has led Shapira and the university to emphasize coexistence between various sectors and strata of Israeli society.

Shapira is not alone in this assertion. Lori Brewer Collins of Artemis Leadership Group notes that multicultural teams trump their more conventional analogues "in the areas of innovating, understanding diverse markets, meeting customer needs, and aligning multiple organizational interests."

The idea that teams are more effective when they are diverse has enormous resonance even for those who work in organizations lacking the conventional trappings of "multiculturalism." Diversity exists in every enterprise and thoughtful leaders will seek to create teams that reflect those differences. Thus, one need not work in a global corporation with colleagues from around the world to reap the benefits of "multicultural" teams. What is needed above all else is a commitment to maximize the diversity that does exist within your organization. Gender balance, generational representation, and an array of skillsets, backgrounds, and perspectives will, if managed properly, enhance the likelihood of better decision-making and a richer, more creative work environment for all. 

For much of our history, Jewish communities have embraced this message. The mishnah of Avot, for example, speaks of three crowns (ketarim in Hebrew) - a metaphor for a tripartite approach to communal leadership, in which power is shared among a diverse group of individuals and interests. The three crowns: Torah, Priesthood, and Sovereignty (often understood as metaphors for educational, religious, and political leadership paradigms) reflect differing perspectives that function best when they function in concert. In the aggregate such diversity enriches the depth and creativity of Jewish life. In healthy Jewish communities, from the biblical period to our own day, individuals from each "crown" come together to create a multi-faceted and richly textured Jewish experience.

As those who lead diverse teams will attest, however, the system of ketarim is not without its own challenges. By definition diversity is often difficult to manage. As Brewer Collins notes, such teams "can become expensive, unproductive hotbeds of frustration, low morale, and finger-pointing." The very things that make diverse teams advantageous also make them high-risk. To be sure, divergent perspectives, differing sensibilities, and varying worldviews often result in the high levels of creativity and resourcefulness required to solve complex problems. But disparate points of view can also mean impassioned argumentation, protracted negotiations, and difficult conversations.  

Those who lead diverse teams effectively do not minimize the significance of members' differing perspectives. Nor would they deny that conflict is inevitable. To maximize the potential for creative solutions and innovative problem solving those differences must be celebrated and then harnessed. Successful leaders do not try to avoid friction rather they seek to manage it. With diversity come varied points of view, multiple approaches and even conflicting agendas. The job of the leader is to explore and exploit those differences while striving to find the best solution under the circumstances.

Too often we impose a binary approach to decision making - we force ourselves to choose between one of two options. We prefer quick decisions with a minimum of debate to a thoughtful exploration of multiple options. The effective leader avoids oversimplification and knows that making decisions too quickly is every bit as problematic as indecisiveness. Challenge yourself to reject facile choices and an "either-or" approach to difficult decision-making. Use the diversity that exists within your team to multiply options before making tough choices.

Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.... Read More

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