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Diversity: The key to successful leadership

  • Kathy Hu
  • |
  • Nov 1, 2018
Diversity: The key to successful leadership

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of Canada, at the 2018 Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership

Kathy Hu is a 2020 HBA Candidate, currently enrolled in HBA1. She attended the Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership at Ivey on October 31 where the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of Canada, delivered the keynote address to HBA1 students. McLachlin also spoke to business leaders at an earlier event in Ottawa. The Lecture was established in 2006 to salute Tom d’Aquino’s outstanding contributions to national and international business, public policy, and the voluntary sector. It is supported by the  Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership.

The phrase, you can’t be what you can’t see, certainly did not prove true for the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin.

She began her career nearly 40 years ago. It was a time when women were expected to strive toward marriage and a family; a time when she had no female role models in the workplace to aspire to. At 13, she was told her reading comprehension skills would not be useful in her future, merely because of her gender. After law school, she struggled to find a law firm that would accept a married woman in the workplace. A glass ceiling loomed above her, yet she continued to push higher, moving that ceiling farther for both herself and women in Canada. Despite those challenges, she became the first and only woman to be Chief Justice of Canada as well as the country’s longest-serving Chief Justice.

Defining modern leadership

McLachlin began her session with a question Ivey students are all too familiar with: “What is leadership?”

After some discussion, she settled on a definition we presumably all agreed upon: leadership is about enabling each team member to do the best s/he can. Now, how do you execute leadership to reach a vision? The answer here seemed obvious as well: strong lines of communication, collaboration, respect, etc. However, McLachlin offered an idea I had not previously considered: diversity is critical for successful leadership.

Leadership and diversity ultimately go hand in hand. Through experiences both in and out of the classroom, it has become evident to most Ivey students that a traditional top-down  leadership approach is no longer effective in solving the complex issues prevalent in modern society. Modern leadership is more than just opening up communication channels and allowing information to flow in all directions, but also considering the pool of individuals from which this communication arises. This form of modern leadership can only be achieved by embracing diversity at every level.

Diversity matters

Integrating diversity into teams and organizations is more than just a moral imperative. Hopefully, that much is already obvious. McLachlin focused her discussion on the practical nature of diversity. Diversity is a method to arrive at the right goals and better solutions. Diversity allows for the integration of new ideas, perspectives, and talents from groups that previously lacked a voice in both public and private institutions. To craft the best solution and execute a holistic decision-making process, teams must represent numerous backgrounds and experiences.

The challenge for future leaders

While progress has certainly been made since McLachlin was questioned for being a married woman in search of a job, it is evident that both corporations and government alike still have far to go. Token diversity, or diversity for the sake of diversity, is prominent in many teams and organizations, both in the public and private sector. True diversity is not just about what your team looks like, but rather how your team operates.

McLachlin closed her speech with a story about a man in her courtroom who felt uncomfortable because he was “a little outnumbered” by the females in the room.

“How many times have women felt a little outnumbered?” she asked.

As both a woman and a person of colour, the feeling of being a minority has been normalized. The feeling of not being “outnumbered” has never truly crossed my mind. Diversity ultimately plays a critical role in normalizing the presence of women and minorities in teams, until not one individual feels “outnumbered” and the diversity prevalent in Canada is represented in organizations at all levels.

McLachlin highlighted for us, the next generation of leaders, challenging but critically important goals to strive for when we enter the workforce.