Diversity, Inclusion, and Leader Emergence: What White Males Can Do


As our current presidential campaign cycle has made clear, we don't need to scratch too hard at the surface of social attitudes and emotions to find the vulnerability to anger, resentment, and scapegoating. When aroused and intensified, these aggressive emotions can narrow and even blind our capacity for clear-minded thought. When manipulated to influence action, these emotions seldom yield a search for truth, fair-minded judgment, or the greater good.

For our purposes, we need not appraise which party or candidates are most guilty of exploiting the darker side of our nature. It's enough to acknowledge that the vulnerability exists and that appealing to it does little to promote intelligent thought, virtuous action, or genuine responsibility. It certainly doesn't make us better as people, as citizens, as workers, or as leaders.

But how does all of this relate to diversity, inclusion, and leader emergence? And why do I call out white males as a group when asking what we can do about these matters? Let me explain.

The Current State of D&I

Research indicates that most organizations (70% or more) assert a commitment to diversity and inclusion goals, and to promoting emergent leadership in their organizations. Research also tells us that unconscious bias and implicit prototypes of leadership work against the advancement of nonwhite and female members of the workforce. Indeed, these biases operate even among "good" (i.e., well-intended) people (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013).

The stubborn grip of these less conscious forces can create frustration for all parties. From the standpoint of those adversely affected by bias and male-dominated models of what leadership looks like, the walk does not match the talk—impatience grows. For those in the majority operating under the unconscious forces of bias, there may be genuine puzzlement—their intentions are good, and they think they're doing all they can.

On top of the felt frustration and impatience on both sides, there have been growing demands by management that D&I initiatives provide proof that strategies for being more inclusive deliver bottom-line effects. We can then wonder if management is adopting the attitude of the Missouri mule, "show me," or if they're actively looking for ways to notice the effects of acting on the belief that a more inclusive, engaged culture will bring out the best in its people.

The Situation and Challenge for White Males

As one of those well-intended white males, I can tell you that members of my demographic can feel caught in the middle. On the one hand, it is not too difficult to feel unfairly criticized, misunderstood, or even demonized when this topic arises at a diversity conference. On the other hand, most of us, upon reflection, can see that we have a vital responsibility for helping to "catch," pre-empt, and prevent the continuation of such bias in the workplace. 

With this in mind, let me offer five specific suggestions that will give my white, male brethren (as leaders) something practical and helpful to do:

  1. Don't confuse demographic diversity with diversity of thought. You will quickly alienate those who know that's not the whole story. As a very talented African-American woman once told me, "It's hard to demonstrate your diversity of thought if you don't have a seat at the table, or if your voice is not heard by others because of what you look like."
  2. Read. And consider starting with Joining the Resistance by Carol Gilligan (2011). What she talks about—"self-silencing," fear of speaking in a different voice—isn't only relevant for women; it applies to all of us, it happens when we conceal or "cover" (Yoshino, 2006) parts of our identity for fear of being rejected, marginalized, or discounted by the majority.
  3. Notice the less overt, heroic demonstrations of leadership. Emergent leadership must be encouraged. Research tells us that males are more inclined to rely on overt acts of individual agency as a way of being noticed. Females and some ethnic minorities may contribute in more collaborative and less obvious ways. Seek to notice both.
  4. Be inclusive. Resist the temptation to favor those relationships that feel most similar to your preferred style of thinking, acting, and relating to others. Instead, show curiosity and seek to understand the modus operandi of others. Tailor your coaching to others' unique ways of contributing and making a difference.
  5. Expect and encourage acts of emergent leadership. A meeting, whether 1:1 or group, is not done until we ask, "What can you see yourself doing to help lead on this work?" and "When and how can we assert leadership in these situations?" Explicitly notice and comment on the diverse ways to assert aligned acts of emergent leadership.


There is little doubt that those of us who aspire to function as leaders, in formal positions or in a more emergent manner as collaborators, have the opportunity to make a difference. For those of us in the majority, there is much that we can do and should do to encourage inclusion among those who, in virtue of what they look like or how they find it most helpful to influence productive action, may be otherwise overlooked.

Doing this does take a deliberate quality of attention and effort. But I believe and have witnessed over time that such efforts pay off. Moreover, we can, with persistent attention, multiply our effects through the contagion of inclusiveness that our individual actions breed. 

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. You can contact me via phone (401.885.1631) or by email at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com.

References Cited and Recommended

Banaji, M.R. & Greenwald, A.G. (2013). Blind Spot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delecorte Press.

Gilligan, C. (2011). Joining the Resistance. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Yoshino, K. (2006). Covering: The hidden assault on our civil rights. New York: Random House