Inclusive Leadership for the 21st Century

We need to have a critical conversation about what it is to lead and what kind of leaders our world needs to engage the very real, very serious problems facing humanity. The issues our world faces are global in scale. Our oceans are filled with trash and toxins. We are experiencing the hottest year ever recorded. We are seeing disasters of scale on a weekly basis. “The stakes are high” might be an understatement.


People who know me, know that I am an unapologetic nerd. So, I tend to refer to things like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among others. The stakes we’re in right now with leadership in the United States call to mind a scene where Denethor the caretaker of Gondor, a self-involved domineering figure, steps out of his throne hall to see that his city is surrounded, burning, and being overrun. He begins shouting a diatribe of hopelessness, doom, and orders to flee. He is suddenly interrupted by Gandalf, an embodiment of character, authenticity, and wit, with a couple of smacks from Gandalf’s staff to render him unconscious. With Denethor unconscious, Gandalf begins shouting orders for everyone to take their posts and defend their homes and families. I feel like we really could use something like the spirit of this.

Let’s just put a pin in this idea for a second. In 2001, I was in Milwaukee WI, my hometown, for the winter holidays. I was sitting in a matinee for my first viewing of Fellowship of the Ring. As the trailers before the movie were playing, two local high school classes walked in to take their seats, a majority of the students were african american and black. Their chaperones, presumably their teachers, were white. All of us settled in and were taken by Cate Blanchette’s breathy voice over, which itself seemed relevant to our own world. The movie rolled on. About 10 to 15 minutes into the film, murmuring erupted amongst the teenage students then started escalating to protest. Within two minutes, the teachers were up and ushering the still upset students out of the theater. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was glad they took it outside.

Two years later, in the social theory class, we covered systems of oppression (like sexism and racism) and how they are maintained. My heart sank as we discussed how “representation” is used and abused to paint us into a story that, depending on what side of the advantage/disadvantage coin you land on, convinces people that they are either deserving of utmost respect, admiration, acceptance, and deference OR deserving of suspicion, disrespect, dismissal, and even disgust. Does this make sense? Does it sound familiar? Do you ever see this in our world? 

orc lotr

The full realization hit me like a punch in the gut. In the theater that day two years earlier, those teenagers had watched the first black people to appear in the story as evil, violent, animalistic creatures. Why the hell had it taken years for me to figure this out? Because I had grown up in a racially segregated city, Milwaukee WI. I had been shielded from and warned about black people from birth by those I loved. Those sinister characteristics had often shown up in the stories I had been repeatedly told by numerous people I trusted, films, tv shows. Meanwhile, white people were always framed as reasonable, approachable, trustworthy. They occupied leadership positions in all of the institutions around me, and they were always shown as heroes in films, television, and the books I read. As a result, my mind became accustomed to associating danger and fear when interacting with black people and safety and comfort when interacting with white people. 

In that college classroom years ago, I connected the dots to the pain that motivated the protest of those teenagers. They were already growing up in a city that saw them as that, as something like orcs. An anchor dragged my heart into imagining the slow, subtle hell of that realization. All this time, I had never known and only assumed based on trusting the intentions of those I loved who had also largely assumed based on trusting their white elders.This cyclical process is called being “socialized”.

I wanted to paint that picture because true inclusive leadership in our time needs to understand the depths of how to identify our biases that support harm (those stories we’re told about the others in our world) and how they are woven into our institutions and systems. Two years to figure out why something I love had the capacity to cause harm!

We need leaders who can identify their conscious and unconscious biases and actively work to weed them out. We need our leaders to invite and listen to the stories of people unlike ourselves and ‘believe’ them when they talk about their experiences. We need to understand that there is incredible value in a diversity of experience, thinking, knowledge, and approaches to life. This diversity is the biggest key to solutions and innovations. We need to embrace vulnerability and authenticity as the mortar that builds the bridges across difference; because it will build humility as we fall down in the task of building common ground and common purpose with people unlike ourselves.

So how the heck do we use the tools of improv on that journey? How do we use interactive and experiential training to give people the insight to be better leaders? How can we seize a moment of human crisis to inspire positive change?

janet helms
Janet E. Helms

Here are some things that I have tried in stumbling towards what Janet Helms calls “Courageous Imperfection”.

In researching what refugees needed to settle in and return to a functional state of being in community for the design of Spontaneous Village, four ideas emerged as wayposts on that journey: familiarity, the notion that a new person is no longer mysterious (they are knowable); trust, this new person has demonstrated they are safe; routine, one regularly engages with the new person in sharing an experience(s); community, you and ‘I’ have become a ‘we’ and share common concerns and goals with the people around us in this venture.

Let’s talk about these things in the context of an “Inclusive Leadership” training I designed and delivered for the director of a state agency in Oregon and his cabinet. For the familiarity piece, I drew on an exercise that I created (really just practices from other cultures) in a collaboration with Lieselotte Noyen. I call it “Long Introductions”. The participants were asked to walk about the room and pair up repeatedly to introduce themselves. However, they needed to do that by situating themselves in their family context.

“Hello, I am Brad; grandson of Phillis and Joseph, Joyce and Robert; son of Lonnie and Donnie; brother of Annette and Todd; and Uncle to Riley.” 

We did this for about 5 minutes before we stopped and debriefed. People in the cabinet commented on the vulnerability and reflection it created about themselves in the process of doing. Then, a Native American participant spoke up. They said to the group, “This feels like home. This is how my people greet.” A silence followed as the impact of that moment of inclusion sank into all of us.

Trust is almost always steeped in time and shared experience. Having a group establish agreements is always a good first step. I also believe that we need to experience something challenging together and come out the other end affirming our connection and support. In the consulting I’ve done with my colleague Phil Incorvia, I cooked up something we called “Cultural Quirks” where we distribute slips of paper to participants with a single behavioral objective to guide them in a simulation of something like a work meeting, a cocktail party, etc. They can be something as simple as “It’s rude to be too far away from someone when you talk. Keep within arms distance at all times and touch them to affirm you’re listening.” or as complex as “It’s important to give a lot of context and background before getting to your point. Make sure you’re thorough in explaining something or telling a story.”

When we went through this exercise, people invested, and the circus of crossed boundaries emerged. After a little more than 5 minutes, we stopped, and I invited everyone to take time to repair anything they felt they needed to. Laughs, hugs, arm squeezes, and relieved conversations erupted throughout the room. Everyone survived and expressed their regrets, thanks, and prized one another. Relationships grew in that moment. Trust was growing among them.

In trainings on equity, diversity, and inclusion topics, the routine I like learners to engage and reflect on are the unconscious thoughts and actions that we all have and do. There is an asian caterpillar that produces a really fine thread. What’s that called? I’m from Wisconsin, and we all know that cows drink _______? 

Water. Cows drink water. That’s a simple example to demonstrate how automatic our thinking and responses can be due to associated ideas. If this can be for something as safe as cows and milk, what more is hiding in us when it comes to things like race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc? How can we start noticing what we never notice? We have an experience that reframes a situation in a new light.

Jane Elliot is the educator known for dividing her class of 3rd graders by eye color in 1969 and discriminating against one while favoring another in response to Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination.

jane elliott
Jane Elliott

Inspired by her work, I took a risk and created a similar activity for another leadership training. In this group exercise, participants draw a timeline of the workday and identify all the points in the day where unconscious bias could have an impact on the workplace. Before the exercise began, I distributed two different sets of instructions to participants: some tables had yellow and the rest of the tables had blue. The blue set had secret instructions on the back on how to behave toward the yellow instruction people during the timeline group work. We mixed the tables up for the group work. 

The instructions created an atmosphere of subtle discrimination during the timeline exercise. We finished and debriefed in stages. First, people grouped with their like color at their original tables. Second, we revealed the ruse and debriefed in light of the new knowledge with a focus on systems of power. Third, we invited people to take deep breaths and go around to do repair work, ourselves included. As participants departed for lunch, several stopped to tell us that they had never really believed minorities when they complained of these experiences. Being on the other side of the experience had changed their minds. Their routines had been broken, and a new routine was being forged.

At the finish of the Inclusive Leadership training, the director stopped me as I was gearing them to establish some goals. “Brad, with what you’ve taken us through today and the kinds of experiences and discussion, I think it would be negligent to make a plan right now. We are going to need to focus on getting a deeper understanding of how all of this is affecting us and our systems.” The seed was planted. That was my small contribution to the team effort. The director of their office of equity and inclusion took over from there to nourish that seed into a full direction change for that state agency to prioritize “health equity”. 

This past January, almost a year after that training, the director of the Oregon Health Authority penned an op-ed to the state’s largest newspaper titled “A Health Care System Built for People Like Me Needs to Change to Serve Everyone Better.” The idea of community had expanded thanks to the efforts of the office of equity and inclusion growing and nurturing that change to bear fruit.

Inclusive leaders for our world need to be representative of all people, and they need to redesign our systems to minimize (if not eliminate) the differences in access to the things that make our lives safe, manageable, and worth living. Inclusive leaders need to embrace the challenges of this century with an understanding that every last person is necessary for solving these problems. As applied improvisers, we can all help in this effort by providing laboratories of experiences and behaviors through the interactive improv tools at our disposal. We have the gifts and the responsibility to help the citizens of the world work together to create a new story that includes us all.

Published by bradfortier

Educator, Anthropologist, Entertainer who lives in Portland Oregon.

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