Our ability to understand the problems we face — arguably the first step in leadership — is limited and enabled by the ways we understand and relate to the people and world around us. If, for example, we understand the issue of a new building development project as part of the historical genocide committed against Indigenous people in the United States, we are coming from a fundamentally different place than a developer who sees an opportunity to make money and pay her employees. It’s not just a difference of opinion; it’s rooted in different epistemologies — ways of looking and and thinking about how we know what we know. Some of these epistemologies — especially those advocated by free markets, Western science, and democracy — carry a great deal of power in our contemporary world. They tend to outweigh others, like those of Indigenous peoples, who don’t fit (and often don’t want to) into these dominant epistemologies. Their greater weight is not accidental: it is the result of hundreds of years of physical, psychological, and financial conflict. Like it or not, these epistemologies shape how all of us think, whether we accept them unconsciously or resist them actively.
Developing leaders to address the problems of the 21st century requires nurturing the ability to navigate a diverse array of epistemological perspectives. In a world where the failure of many dominant commitments seems all but inevitable (e.g. climate change is coming, and it doesn’t look good) and where increasing attention is given to being inclusive (finally), we need to develop leaders who can finally understand, see, include, and navigate diverse epistemological stances. This isn’t a reminder about the importance of diversity training: This involves knowing ourselves in new and different ways and coming to terms with the assumptions and epistemological commitments underlying our own ways of understanding and constructing the world. And then it requires being able to understand the way those commitments show up in others. This isn’t a training — it’s an endless journey.
Doing this also requires a lot of savvy. Here are a couple of places to get started. It means seeking out and understanding the history of ideas, politics, and power. It means growing a broad and deep understanding of human psychology (the ways we function inside) and sociology (the ways we function together in groups). Even these we can’t take at face value. For example, unless you pay close attention, you might not realize that almost every statistic and study done on human beings excludes people who don’t fit into the category “male” or “female”. The question, then — and an impossible one at that — is how do we develop leaders who take on the responsibility and develop tools to do as much of this personal and political work as possible, while simultaneously finding ways to engage the ways they don’t know.
My challenge to us as leadership developers is this: we need to de-center dominant ways of knowing at the core of our pedagogies, the content of our courses and workshops, and the models of leadership we use. And then we need to work with leaders to find ways to do the same, over and over again. The role of leadership development for the coming century is to nurture human flourishing in and through all of our glorious differences and connections.