Leadership and Diversity

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.

Managing Diversity — Second in a Series of Five Articles


The first article in the Managing Diversity series that appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Camping Magazine hopefully convinced readers that the survival of our industry is at stake. And I’m sure that before even reading that article most camp professionals were aware of the changing demographics of the United States and were at least beginning to formulate plans for some type of diversity initiative. As evidence, the American Camp Association reports that one of the most repeated requests for information by camp administrators and directors centers on working with diversity.

But I ask readers to be patient. Don’t make dramatic organizational changes just yet. We undoubtedly want our diversity initiative to be a success, but there are many obstacles along the way. Some of these are fairly obvious, but others are far less predictable and no less damaging. Recall from the first article the cultural faux pas made by major corporations with millions to spend on research and development. To borrow another corporate example, consider the outcome date associated with international businesspersons.

In an increasingly global economy, it is no longer uncommon for businesspersons to sojourn to other countries for a period of time to assist a foreign subsidiary of one’s "home" corporation. Projects can include setting up a foreign branch, managing joint venture collaborations, or simply assisting in the modification of long-standing business practices of a subsidiary. Since many of these projects require a long-term perspective and are impossible to complete in a matter of days to weeks, expatriate employees often commit months to years to an international assignment. These employees typically both work and live in a new country until the completion of the project.

This expatriation process entails no small cost to companies, and such assignments are often of high importance. Still, based on statistics for different industries, it is estimated that between 20 and 50 percent of expatriate executives fail in their assignments and return home (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham 2001). Additionally, far more simply under-perform while remaining on the assignment.

There are a myriad of reasons for both expatriate under-performance and failure, but the category most salient for this article is the personal characteristics of expatriates. Indeed, certain personality characteristics, internal drives, and skills can be the decisive factors in success or lack of in these assignments. Motivations to incur the challenges of an expatriate work assignment, knowledge and competence of required work related tasks, foreign language ability, self-confidence, introspection, perceptual abilities, and stress management capability all play a role in both the enjoyment and success of an expatriate experience.

What can camp administrators glean from this information? Success with diversity requires a set of cross cultural skills or, in the parlance of diversity trainers, an "intercultural toolbox." And not everybody has these requisite skills. Frankly, recognition of the need for diversification and good intentions are simply not enough.

If you sincerely wish for your camp to become diversified, make sure you are the right person to direct the initiative. The third and fourth articles in this series will describe some of the organizational challenges to diversity and offer suggestions on how camps can circumnavigate these obstacles and develop organizational cross-cultural competence. But organizational change will never be successful if a camp’s leader (or leaders) lacks the abilities associated with intercultural excellence. Instead, camp leaders will find themselves with half-hearted efforts, lackluster results, and possibly, like our corporate cousins, some negative publicity and/or expensive mistakes. As preparation, leaders need to evaluate their biases, intercultural strengths and weaknesses, and goals as a prelude to the initiation of diversity-related changes in their camps.

The Skills for Intercultural Excellence

In preparation for an earlier book Coaching the Camp Coach (2003), I interviewed directors from many different youth-
serving agencies concerning leadership. My opening gambit in each interview was to ask for a personal definition of leadership. Yet, instead of a concise definition, the response was almost always a description of assorted tasks and skills. Leadership, in the eyes of these interviewees, consisted of numerous skills. Many leaders, for example, described the need for impeccable people skills, others for strong organizational skills, and some for creativity and innovation. The final definition of leadership that was used in the text was that leadership is a set of skills necessary for a specific work environment and for successful interactions with other work participants.

Working successfully with diversity will require an augmented skill set. This article focuses specifically on individual characteristics that have been found to be associated with intercultural excellence, or, in other words, the ability to engage successfully with other cultures (including the achievement of personal fulfillment from such encounters). Some of these characteristics are similar to those for a good leader in general, but the overlap is not 100 percent. Readers interested in a list of skills and characteristics indicative of a good leader will find no paucity of resources (two such resources are Coaching the Camp Coach or the article "Developing Excellence in Camp Leadership" in the March/April 2006 issue of Camping Magazine). For now though, the remainder of this section will detail leadership skills and traits circumscribed to intercultural excellence.

Research indicates that there are three personality dispositions associated with intercultural excellence. These three dispositions are not skills per se, but rather inborn, likely genetically-influenced habitual approaches to life. This means that some fortunate individuals are more biologically primed for success with cross-cultural involvement.

An apt analogy is that most successful professional basketball players are tall; much success depends on height in this sport. Thus tall individuals have an advantage in the sport of basketball. Note though that even these tall players must still put in much practice and hard work to reach their professional status. Furthermore, individuals of average height have become renowned in the sport because of their personal commitment to success. In sum, even those individuals genetically programmed for the three psychological dispositions associated with intercultural excellence will still need to master these inborn traits for their successful use. And those individuals lacking one or all of these variables can still compensate through effort and diligence. Unfortunately, this latter group will likely never find the task as easy—and possibly as fulfilling—as the former group.

Predisposition One: Openness
This description is synonymous with open-mindedness and tolerance for ambiguity. In general, openness is the ability to be receptive to new information. In intercultural encounters, this characteristic allows a person to perceive and interpret a novel situation without preset cultural biases. We become aware of the "filter" or "lens" that we consciously or unconsciously use in working with diverse groups.

Predisposition Two: Positivity
This is synonymous with optimism. As defined by psychology, optimists see negative occurrences as temporary, isolated to particular circumstances, as the result of external causes, and as able to be overcome with sufficient effort. Individuals that instinctively veer towards pessimism tend to blame themselves for negative events, perceive of these events as affecting all areas of their lives, and predict that cascading effects will last a long time (if not permanently).

Predisposition Three: Personality Strength
The generic term "personality strength" is synonymous with resilience, persistence, and hardiness. In more common parlance, personality strength is the ability to bounce back from shocks and negative occurrences. Not surprisingly, individuals that have a high level of personality strength take more risks and tend to be extroverted, though this latter characteristic is certainly not seen in all individuals rating high in personality strength.

In addition to the three dispositions just listed, there are other independent characteristics associated with intercultural excellence. The following are all far more malleable than the internal predispositions just described:

  • Voluntariness of the Experience/Motivation

Individuals who partake of intercultural encounters, due to intrinsic motivation, tend to demonstrate higher levels of intercultural excellence. Intrinsic motivation occurs when an individual participates in an activity for the challenge and/or enjoyment of it; internal motivation results in personal investment. Thus a person who is desirous of intercultural excellence will make efforts to both learn and grow in this competence. In contrast, assigning a person to a task force addressing camp planning for intercultural excellence simply because he or she demonstrates positivity (or any amalgam of the above-stated predispositions) but who lacks any interest in intercultural excellence may elicit satisfactory performance but will never strive for intercultural excellence. The more motivated a person is to grow in cross-cultural skills, the more personal development will occur. Coerced intercultural growth may cede to a grudging respect for diversity but never match the outcomes of a highly motivated individual.

  • Willingness to Change

Many individuals are not tolerant of change. In fact, there appears to be a tendency for humans to become resistant to change as we age. Some individuals are genetically fashioned to be novelty seekers and will likely search for change inducing experiences up until the very ends of their lives. The rest of us will not be so open to change, particularly change that requires much effort. This is not to criticize risk aversion, and it does have its evolutionary benefits and probably played no small role in the long-term survival of our species. Still, the willingness to change—to be open to discomfort, stress, and resulting personal growth—is a requirement on an individual level if we expect to achieve more than cursory relations with diverse demographic groups.

A Second Paradigm Shift: The Value of Diversity

The first article in this series informed readers that the essential preliminary step in successfully recruiting and working with diverse populations is a change in the paradigm (i.e., cognitive map) that consciously or unconsciously guides many camp administrators. We will never be successful if we do not change our camps to meet the needs of diverse groups. Instead, many in our field take for granted that diverse groups will need to change to fit into our camps. Prepare for failure if this is the mindset with which you approach diversity.

A second but no less important paradigm shift is necessary if a leader is to be successful in a diversity initiative. This second paradigm shift addresses a leader’s perspective on the value of diversity. We will review some research from the field of organizational development that is pertinent to our examination, particularly an overview of diversity as formulated by Thomas & Ely (1999).

Discrimination and Fairness Paradigm
The original—and still most common—paradigm of diversity is named the discrimination and fairness paradigm (Thomas & Ely 1999). Most important in this paradigm is that the organization operates as if every individual is of the same race, gender, and nationality. Important differences amongst individuals are not taken into account. Such organizations may be "color blind" and "gender blind" in hiring but make no effort to truly take advantage of diversity. Many researchers have decried the current perspective on diversity in that it focuses on quotas and compliance with governmental regulations. Such a perspective often breeds resentment on all sides and does not allow a great many individuals to make use of their skills and talents in the workplace.

A camp director working from a discrimination and fairness paradigm would likely take the necessary steps so as not to appear biased or prejudiced. Thus, if one quarter of the communities serving the camp is comprised of Hispanic families, then one quarter of camp participants should be Hispanic. There is no attempt to change the camp to meet the demands and needs of new populations. This is so because, working from this paradigm, everybody is more-or-less the same, and thus there is no need for any specialized treatment. Heritage and cultural practices are not considered in camp planning. All in all, such directors desire a diverse camp population but treat each group in the same way.

Access and Legitimacy Paradigm
A more advanced paradigm for diversity is labeled the access and legitimacy paradigm. This mindset focuses on the bottom line benefits of diversity. Organizations utilize a diverse workforce to have more access to a diverse client base by matching employee demographics to targeted consumer populations. In short, diversity makes good business sense. At a camp conference, I met an assistant camp director who was working from this model. She was purposefully attempting to hire African American staff (none too successfully, according to her report) so that she would have a better chance of recruiting African American campers.

The downside to this paradigm is that the benefits of diversity are underutilized—there is little effort to really analyze and make the best use of diversity. This in turn may lead individuals to feel exploited. I have seen enough camp brochures and related advertisements to recognize the increasing spotlight on international staff as selling points for prospective parents and campers. Unfortunately, for many camps this spotlight on international staff does not equate with practice in the actual camp setting. Camps are likely to expect these staff members to become "Americanized" fairly quickly. From the perspective of these camps, the ideal would be a collection of staff from different countries and that acted similar to American staff. Thus, it could be advertised to parents that the camp staff is comprised of individuals hired from around the world without having to actually manage the intercultural stressors that such diversity incurs.

Other problems arise with this paradigm. One is that many ethnic and cultural groups are ignored because our agencies don’t have the interest or ability to pursue them. In addition and as explained in the first article in this series, many individuals do not want to pigeonhole themselves into one ethnic group and may experience resentment at attempts at agency tokenism. The use of this second paradigm tends to put people into cultural boxes that may have little connection to real life.

Emerging Paradigm
The final paradigm is named the emerging paradigm. Under this paradigm, diversity is truly celebrated. Individuals are tapped for their differences. Their often-different perspectives are utilized for the benefits associated with diversity, including creativity, problem solving, and organizational flexibility. Diversity enhances the entire workplace and is incorporated into the organization’s mission, goals, strategies, and overall culture. Of all of the paradigms, this is the one that acknowledges differences between individuals as well as the value that such differences offer. The organization becomes more healthy and successful as a result of diversity.

Unfortunately, few organizations have been able to implement the final emerging paradigm. Most organizations—including camps—continue to work out of the former two paradigms in which diversity is underutilized. We should all be striving toward the emerging paradigm. It is only from this mindset will we be able to consistently utilize the varied skills of all of the members of our communities.

Evaluating Ourselves

Astute readers may have noted some seemingly glaring absences in regards to the skills and attributes necessary for intercultural excellence. What about language proficiency? What about recognition of a group’s cultural customs? What about knowing the history of a particular group with which we are hoping to collaborate? These readers may believe that there has to be more to success than general excellence in leadership, three predispositions (openness, positivity, personality strength); two attributes (motivation, willingness to change); and two paradigm shifts, right?

My rejoin is "yes, there is more," and that knowledge of a targeted culture is indeed important. When we do decide to invite diversity into our camps and have targeted a particular group, all of these additional issues become relevant. Fortunately, learning a targeted group’s history and cultural customs is possible in this day and age with the mere assistance of our computer and the Internet. And even if we don’t have the time to learn a second language, we can always find a person to assist us who does speak the language. In contrast, the traits and attributes listed in the article are not quite so easily learned. In fact, if we are not born with these attributes, we will likely never be stellar in these areas.

Success with diversity requires a constant reinvention of ourselves and our camps. Some changes may be small and others may trespass into the actual mission statement for our facility. Once we seriously invite diversity into our facilities, we cannot predict all of the changes that this may necessitate. Those leaders who are resistant to change are not intrinsically motivated regarding diversification or who are unwilling to modify their camps to meet evolving needs will not have the forbearance to maintain a diversity initiative. Having the attributes of both leadership and intercultural excellence allows us to foresee, appreciate, and proactively plan for diversity. The overriding goal is to learn the requisite skills to interact successfully with any demographic group. Once a foundation of intercultural excellence is in place, we can fill in the details with information regarding a targeted group.

It is very important to evaluate who is the right person to lead a diversity initiative. Those lacking personality strength and optimism will not naturally seek out diversity and its inherent stress. Those who believe that our camps should remain unalterable entities in this quickly changing world will never be able to offer a comfortable experience for diverse demographic groups. Some leaders may simply be the wrong people to lead a diversity initiative.

All camp leaders need to evaluate themselves concerning their general and intercultural leadership abilities. I do not want to spend much time on this required process except to remind readers that any individual is the least accurate and qualified person to evaluate their own leadership skills. An honest, meaningful, and valid evaluation requires external input. An assessment of our strengths and weaknesses based solely on a personal review is not sufficient.

Once an individual has evaluated his or her own strengths and weaknesses as they relate to diversity, he or she has several options. If the evaluation indicates that the individual really isn’t strong in most of the areas required for intercultural excellence, a person who does have these characteristics needs to be found. This doesn’t mean that the camp director has to quit his or her job, but rather the director should promote a person already on his or her own team to act as a "trailblazer" for the diversity initiative. Fortunately for the camp industry, people who run camps tend to have all of the requisite characteristics in some measure—although we may be stronger in some areas than others. In this likely scenario, the person must then proceed with ongoing skill development.

The challenge here is that skills necessary for intercultural excellence cannot be learned through a workshop, a book, or (and I hate to admit it) an article. These are skills, attributes, and mindsets that must be developed and cultivated over a long period of time through practice, introspection, and coaching. This will take time and cost money.

The Capacity to Lead

Once you acknowledge the need to diversify your camp, the first step is to determine if you have the capacity to lead a diversity initiative. Research recognizes several essential skills, characteristics, and attributes necessary for success in leadership and diversity management. Evaluation of these characteristics and resulting skill development are required before moving on to changing our camps at an organizational level.

Readers who have perused my articles over the years are all too familiar with hearing me say this. I have already written on the evaluation process elsewhere, and interested readers can contact the ACA for a reprint of afore-mentioned "Developing Excellence in Camp Leadership" and "Evaluating a Good Season" from the September/October 2003 edition of Camping Magazine. See the references below for additional information on a protocol for long-term personal change.

Shelton, M. (2003). Coaching the Camp Coach. Indiana: American Camp Association.
Shelton, M. (2003). Evaluating a good season. Camping Magazine, September/October, 16-22.
Shelton, M. (2006). Developing excellence in camp leadership. Camping Magazine, March/April, 22-31.
Thomas, D. & Ely, R. (1999). Making differences matter: A new paradigm for managing diversity. In Harvard business review on managing people (pp.121-154). Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock. Pennsylvania: Routledge.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Shelton can be reached via his Web site: www.meshelton.com.

Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.