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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The most important leadership competency

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Nouman Ashraf

You have said that the most important leadership competency for the 21st century is the ability to navigate differences. Why is this so important right now?

One of the most amazing things we have witnessed in our time is the ability of platforms and technology to connect us all virtually. But with this vast ecosystem of connectedness comes an obligation to really take in and absorb what is coming at us — and not simply from the lens of our own experience. We need to attempt to understand other people’s experiences. Effective leadership is not simply about leading people who are like-minded. It is about leading across differences. Notice that I say leading across, not managing or dealing with differences? That’s because to me the terms managing and dealing with problematize the other. Instead, we need to elevate the other from something foreign to be suspicious or wary of, to something that we are curious about and from which we can learn.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “I do not like that man; I must get to know him better.” The moment we have a visceral reaction to someone, it should trigger us to shift from distain to curiosity. We need to ask ourselves, What is it about my interaction with Person X that makes me feel this way? I believe that sometimes what we are reacting to is a less-evolved version of our former selves. In some way, we are reminded of our own inadequacies.

As leaders, we need to have more humility, empathy and deeper compassion for those who are different from us. Not from a place of, I feel badly for you because you’re not like me, but oh, isn’t it amazing that you look at the world so differently! That is how insight is born. I will quote Plato now, who said, “it is in the sparking of radically different ideas that we get the sparks of innovation, new things, new ideas.” This really is our best bet in today’s complex world.

What occurs in an organization when people feel like they truly belong and can completely be themselves?

John Lennon was once asked whether the Beatles would ever get back together. Without missing a beat he said, “never.” And then he said something very profound: “Because you can never reheat a soufflé.” When people, purpose, process, and belonging come together, you can get this unbelievable perfect storm where people know exactly why they’re there and what they need to do.

Fundamentally, the belonging piece incentivizes us to work on an organization, not just work for the organization. When this happens, people literally step up to the best of their potential — which, in most cases, is not even known to them until they get into these situations. We as leaders need to aspire to this — and measure it, to ensure we’re progressing towards it.

It bothers me that some people accept a less-adaptive view of themselves and don’t even try to change.

Do you see organizations embracing these concepts and reaping the rewards?

Definitely. One example is Canada’s large financial institutions. The war for talent has made our big banks increasingly conscious that the days when people work in the same tower on Bay Street for the rest of their lives are long gone. Increasingly, people are looking for a line of sight between what they do and what they reap from it.

As is the case with innovation, inclusion is something that people need to see being modeled. An organization’s best hope is to have a clear vision for it and senior leaders modeling it. The banks have been very good at this. It began with federal regulatory programs, but they have gone way beyond those in recent years. I think there is a growing understanding that if we are to succeed as a nation of immigrants, we need a two-way exchange. You can’t be what you can’t see, so how are we actually creating pathways — or what I call the escalator to success? Education is a big part of the answer.

How do you define cultural fluency, and how can one obtain it?

I really like the metaphor of cultural fluency — primarily because I don’t like the idea of cultural sensitivity. It’s too soft and mushy for me. This is not just about being sensitive or insensitive. I’m also not keen on the idea of cultural competence, because the opposite of that is incompetence, so it seems a little pompous to me. The term fluency originates with an understanding of how languages operate.

A student of mine once said to me “Language acquisition begins with attachment. We all speak the languages of people with whom we have attachment: our parents, our grandparents, our caregivers, our community members.” We all have latent cultural affinities, and so, we actually have to create an attachment to dealing with difference, embracing diversity, and enabling inclusion. When we do that, that’s when we can talk about other things like the acquisition of vocabulary. How do people like to be referred to? What are the right pronouns to use? How should you think about all-gender bathrooms? What about an accessibility plan? And so on.

Before you can do any of that, you have to be committed to seeing the other as your equal, with the same rights and responsibilities, aspirations and hopes. And most importantly, the same ability to contribute to our collective overall purpose. When people across differences can leverage their experiences and aspirations to create something out of a common purpose, that’s when the soufflé rises.

Rather than accepting the things we cannot change, you believe we should follow Angela Davis’s advice and “change the things we cannot accept.” What are some of the things that you cannot accept?

I cannot accept when people make excuses that somehow they’re just too old for all of this, or that they grew up in a different era. Even here at the Rotman School, I hear that. It really bothers me that some people accept a less-adaptive view of themselves and don’t even try to change. They will say things like, "at a particular moment in time, things were very different," or "I don’t even feel like I can take a female colleague out for lunch anymore". A friend of mine, Paddy Stamp, used to be the University of Toronto’s sexual harassment officer. Professors would say to her, "when I’m meeting with a female student, should I keep the door open or closed?" She would look at them and say, "sir, I don’t think the door is the problem."

We have to get beyond these facile, generalized views of our own selves. We are incredibly adaptive beings. The question is, how do we align motivations and incentives? The fact is, if people are motivated to change something, they will do it. I teach in the Rotman EMBA program, and my colleagues and I are here at 6:30 a.m. on weekend mornings to prep for the 7 a.m. class — and we’re happy about it. We’ve got no issues because we are motivated. I view my teaching as an articulation of all the amazing research and insight that I get to share with others; and in truth, I get back even more in return. In the same way, we have to get people incentivized to embrace inclusion.

I don’t believe in condemnation. I believe in education.

At this point, I am done with trying to make excuses for the status quo. But at the same time, I don’t believe in condemnation. I believe in education. Don’t condemn, educate. Show people better ways. Engage people as equals. The moment that we hold people in distain or contempt, we have written them off, and that is not acceptable. When we do the work of inclusion — and every leader must do their part on this — we do not have the luxury of writing people off.

As the Rotman School’s director of equity, diversity and inclusion, what is the most important lesson you have learned to date about making all of this a reality?

The industry comes to the Rotman School for insight on a range of things like economics, research and finance, accounting, operations, and so on, but they should also be coming to us for insights around inclusion. We need to lead the way. I loved that winning aspiration — the idea that we need to be at the very top of our game and not just scraping by.

My top two aha moments were as follows: one, that we have a really strong, supportive, and engaged team around this, and two, that our wider community is engaged. And they are listening.

headshot of Nouman AshrafNouman Ashraf is an assistant professor in the teaching stream within the organizational behaviour and human resources management area at the Rotman School of Management.