Leading Those Who Are Different from You

From gender to race to politics to class, here’s what it takes to lead across differences.
Leading Those Who Are Different from You
Image: SCYTHER5 / SHUTTERSTOCK

I’ve spent most of my career being led by people who are different from me: people of the opposite gender, other races, different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. I learned early on how to succeed in work environments in which I was a minority. I did my best to act like the people in charge, trying to think like them and even talk like them. I was pretty successful at it, and that made the achiever in me very happy.

Yet when I found myself moving into leadership positions, I realized that my desire and need to conform left me unsure of my own voice and perspective. I realized that my previous work experiences had not prepared me to trust and value my ability to lead and create change. Conformity had been valued over diversity of opinion, and there was very little room for me to exercise my own voice.

Looking back, I wonder what might have been if I had realized the value of my unique perspective—a perspective shaped by my heritage, gender, and life experiences.

Today, I have the privilege of working with a multicultural congregation in downtown Chicago. I get to lead an amazing group of people that includes different races, ethnicities, ages, economic classes, and political views. Navigating through the many perspectives can be challenging, but I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. By serving among so many different people, I have learned more about myself, God, and how to lead and love better than I ever thought possible.

Leading Toward Inclusion

I often meet with other leaders who are interested in planting or leading diverse congregations, and they want to know what it takes to lead in a diverse context. My response? “That depends. Do you want to lead a church where everyone conforms? Or do you want to be a leader who creates a space for everyone to be heard and valued?”

The first is easy and comfortable; the second is challenging but transformative.

Leading toward inclusion is difficult, but I believe that brings out the best in everyone. I don’t know if anyone ever “arrives” when it comes to inclusive leadership. It is a lifelong journey, but we learn a lot of lessons along the way.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) about leading toward inclusion.

Lesson 1: It’s Not About Me

Leading people who are different from one another means that I don’t always get to be right. Honestly, that’s a hard pill to swallow some days. Leading toward inclusion starts with me and my willingness to be open to different thinking and perspectives. I have to choose to invite people who are different from me into the decision-making process.

To do that, I must create a space where I provide more questions than answers. In these environments, I end up learning more about other people, and that often opens my mind to solutions I could have never come up with on my own. It’s a beautiful thing, but I first have to choose to invite them to the table.

Lesson 2: Always Ask “Who Is Missing?”

Once I make the invitation, I look around the table and ask myself, Who is missing and why? What am I intentionally or unintentionally doing to keep certain people out? If I don’t push myself, I will gravitate toward people just like me because it’s comfortable.

A few years ago, I noticed that all of the people on one of my volunteer leadership teams were very similar to me. Although they were diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, everyone had a similar level of education and socioeconomic status. I had to ask myself what I was doing that excluded people who were less educated or in a different economic class.

I apply this question to all the teams I lead, staff members I hire, and even my circle of friends. I have to continually work at creating a space where all are welcome. If everyone around the table is like me, it’s highly unlikely that we will make the best decision for the ministry or organization.

Lesson 3: People Need to Feel Safe

Just because a group is diverse doesn’t mean it’s safe. This is the harder thing to achieve. Do the people I lead feel safe enough to bring their unique voice and perspective to the table? As leaders, we have to set the stage for celebrating diverse perspectives. We have to be aware of the ways race, ethnicity, gender, and class affect the way we engage in the world. We need to create safe spaces for people to speak up—in their own time, in their own way, and at their own pace.

Some people have been told that their voice doesn’t matter, or that they are too loud, not eloquent enough, or too soft spoken. We get to create a space where they can heal and be reminded of the truth that their voice does matter. Normalizing diversity is an essential part of leading toward inclusion. As believers, it’s also important for us to normalize and celebrate diversity because that’s the way God created the world.

Diversity is the natural state of the world. Reading Genesis 1–2 you quickly realize how much God loves diversity. In the Garden of Eden, we see God created a wide variety of unique and different plants and animals, yet everything worked together in perfect harmony and unity. It wasn’t until after the Fall that we saw division and discord in creation, and that was not God’s original design for the world.

Jesus came to invite us back into relationship with God and all of humanity, to remind us that we were all created equal in the image of God. Jesus invited everyone into this relationship: the poor, the rich, men, women, educated, non-educated, Jews, and Gentiles. Jesus modeled radical love and inclusion. In his final prayer for all of the believers, Jesus said, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you” (John 17:21). Jesus prayed that we would be unified, just as the Trinity is the ultimate expression of unity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each uniquely different but exist in oneness.

Leading toward unity and inclusion doesn’t mean that we all become the same. It means that we celebrate the diversity we see in each other and recognize that we are better together than we are apart. When we enter conversations with this perspective, we create spaces where others can feel safe.

Lesson 4: Everyone Has a Voice

At the table, everyone should understand that their voice is important and their ideas are valid. Leading across differences means that I get to use my power and influence to create safe spaces for people to show up, speak up, and be heard. It means that it’s okay to challenge and disagree with the leader. It’s my job to lead through the tension and toward a solution where we can walk away unified.

This sets the stage for healthy and meaningful dialogue, and we begin to see the value that everyone brings to the table. When we all bring our unique and God-given voices to the table, something beautiful happens. The solutions and ideas that come from that space are rarely attributed to the leader. The best decisions come from the collective voice. People walk away feeling heard and valued.

Leading Toward Unity

Leading toward inclusion is transformative because it requires us to work together toward unity. We begin to see our differences not as a barrier but as a strength, just as God intended in the Garden. We are then moved to lead with a radical love that recognizes the image of God in each individual and creates space for all at the table.

Chi Chi Okwu serves as the Associate Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in downtown Chicago, overseeing all social justice outreach initiatives and providing directional leadership for the Community Care and Discipleship ministries. She is passionate about creating spaces for authentic community and mobilizing the church to engage in the fight against injustice.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter
Differences; Leadership; Ministry; Racial Reconciliation
Today's Christian Woman, April 27, 2016
Posted April 27, 2016

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