Dean Smith Shows Why Inclusive Leadership of Diverse Teams Fosters Creativity and Flexibility

inclusive leadershipDean Smith began his long and historic coaching career at the University of North Carolina in 1961, at the tender age of 30, but already with a long history of compassion and inclusion behind him. As a high schooler in rural Kansas in the late 1940s, he pushed his school to integrate the basketball program, which at the time had separate teams for black and white players. He kept that activism up at UNC, where he signed the first African-American player in school history, brought his integrated teams to segregated diners, and basically set an example of decency that helped change the culture of a school, a city, and a region. This was true inclusive leadership.

Smith knew that his role as a leader on campus was about more than winning basketball games (though he won plenty of those). He was setting an example for his players, for the community, and for leaders in the community. As more North Carolina political, business, and social leaders saw how successful his style was, they emulated him, helping to create a more inclusive environment in business and society in the state. He set a template for inclusive leadership, one that now is more important than ever for leaders of any organization.

Understanding the Benefits of Inclusive Leadership

There are a lot of different leadership styles. A classic one is top-down, something practiced by leaders from Ashurnasirpal II to Lee Iacocca. This is where what the leader says goes. In times of crisis, this style can be effective, but it has its flaws too: top-down leadership doesn’t help grow a new generation of leaders, and it has the potential be inflexible and subject to the whims of leaders who may not always have the best ideas.

Inclusive leadership is a different kind of leadership. Simply put, this is about including the contributions of everyone in your organization, about valuing different points of view, and about integrating the ideas and talents of your entire team. It’s a focused effort to avoid monopolizing the conversation at your company.

There are many benefits to practicing an inclusive leadership style. These include:

  • Fostering a Sense of Responsibility. When the voices and opinions of every team member are valued and important, every team member begins to feel like a stakeholder. They understand that the success of the team depends on them. In many organizations, there is a disconnect between an employee’s work and the ultimate result. If employees feel like their contributions are not essential, this will be reflected in their work through a lack of enthusiasm, focus, engagement, and ownership.
  • Promoting Creativity. When employees know that their ideas are valued and taken seriously, it can open the floodgates of creativity. Instead of being stressed about following an exact and rigid process or set of dictates, your team will be concerned with innovating. They will be inspired to create.
  • Opening Up Perspectives. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. No matter who you are, your decision-making and thinking process is shaped and, to an extent, constrained by your upbringing, background, education, work history, and personality. Inclusive leadership means that everyone’s voice matters. It means that a perspective you may have never considered will be taken seriously. A project can be filtered through a variety of experiences, which can shape and mold it in a way that one person–or just one type of person–never could.
  • Strengthening Your Decision-Making Process. Decisions shouldn’t be a coin flip. That is to say, you should have more than one or two choices when faced with an organizational or business decision. Practicing inclusive leadership, the kind that encourages people to think creatively and come up with innovative ideas, brings more options to the table. The right idea is more likely to be in that set of options than springing fully-formed from the mind of one person.
  • Grooming Leadership. Perhaps the most important aspect of inclusive leadership is that it helps to identify and groom talent for the next generation of leaders. Employees aren’t ignored because they don’t have the same experience as upper management. Potential leaders spend a whole career practicing independent thinking. And they start to practice leadership of their own, because their voices are valued.

How to Practice Inclusive Leadership

If you want to practice inclusive leadership in your organization, there are a few things to keep in mind. You have to:

  • Treat everyone with respect. Don’t belittle opinions because they don’t reflect your own. Show a legitimate appreciation for people from all backgrounds, whether that is cultural, educational, racial, or religious.
  • Hold people accountable for inclusion. Dean Smith’s first African-American player was Charles Scott. In one of his first games–a home game–a fan yelled a racial epithet. The mild-mannered Smith started to sprint into the crowd to confront him, but was held back. In doing this, he sent a message to his coaches, to the fans, and to the players. Disrespectful behavior wasn’t going to be tolerated. You may not have an example this dramatic, but a leader sets the tone. You have the power to make sure that no one is shutting down anyone else’s point-of-view. You make sure that everyone feels comfortable, and feels included. It all starts with you.
  • Encourage creativity. Inclusion means having a diversity of voices and experiences, and it means practicing inclusive leadership by treating those individuals as valued pieces of the puzzle. It also means setting up diverse teams, with different experiences between them, that can approach a problem from many directions at the same time.
  • Seek out new voices. So many organizations have people coming from the same schools, with the same backgrounds, and therefore, largely the same ideas. This is a good recipe to create a stagnant culture that places more emphasis on conformity than on creativity. Inclusive leadership of a diverse team starts with inclusive recruiting and hiring. Ensure that your hiring procedures and HR department are proponents of this practice.

This is what Dean Smith knew. When he brought voices and people to the UNC basketball program that had never before been invited, he didn’t just get some great players–he opened up his possibilities for success.  Players who came from different backgrounds had different styles, played for different coaches, and had different ideas about the game. Smith’s inclusivity made him a better coach, and it made him a better leader. The number of kids who played for him who went on to be coaches says enough. Smith lived the ideas of inclusive leadership, passed them on to others, and left a legacy of decency and tolerance. His inspiration changed the world.

Do you want to learn more about how to create and inclusively manage a diverse team? If you want to jumpstart your organization’s flexibility, creativity, and teamship, contact Applied Vision Works.



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