Chip R. Bell, Author, Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles
There was a Muppet character on Sesame Street who was an enthusiastic chef with such a strong Swedish accent you could not understand a single word he said. His sketch appeared like a Julia Childs style cooking show. My son was eight or nine at the time, and it made him laugh every time. My late business partner was of Swedish heritage and from Minnesota. He loved telling jokes about Minnesotans with Swedish accents. While you could understand all his words, his accent sounded much like the Muppet character.
His stories always had the same middle-aged characters—Ole (sounds like holy), his wife, Lena and their friend, Sven. Ole was not the sharpest knife in the drawer leaving Lena to always explain things to him. Sven was silly, well-meaning, but also underperforming in the quickness category. My partner’s jokes were funny but politically incorrect. He would likely not tell them today. Here is an example:
Lena goes to the outhouse and finds Sven inside throwing dollar bills in the hole. “Sven, watcha doin,’ big fella? You’re throwing ‘ya dollars down into the hole of the outhouse!” Sven answers, “Well, when I pulled up my pants, I dropped a nickel down there—and I’m not going down into that mess for just a nickel!” Ironically, years later, I heard football great John Madden tell a variation on the exact same joke in a keynote speech. So, how many middle-aged Minnesotans with a Swedish accent work for you? What do you think about offering a training class on how to more effectively lead this unique group?
Is This Really About Minnesotans With a Swedish Accent?
About this point in this blog, you are suspecting this blog is not really about middle-aged Minnesotans with a Swedish accent at all. It is about the dangers of labels and typecasts. How to effectively lead a Minnesotan with a Swedish accent seems silly. And, “Minnesotans with Swedish Accents” could be replaced with any designated group different than the majority. Most genders, races, creeds, sexual orientations, and age-groups have taken their turn under the “leading a unique sector of the workplace” microscope.
I have been consulting organizations for over thirty years on how to foster a more humanist workplace. I have watched the profession go through lots of very savvy efforts to pigeonhole employees into categories or styles or features in order to make leadership more prescriptive. During the start of the deliberate push for greater diversity, there were classes on “how to lead minorities” or “what women want in a leader.” Sexual orientation has had its spotlight in these “how to lead” classes.
Then, there was the personality instrument era. Many leaders took classes to learn how to influence ESTJ’s or Analytics or Controllers. I have been in organizations that posted employees’ Myers-Briggs or FIRO-B scores under their cubicle nameplates so leaders could get an instant interpersonal roadmap for effective interaction. Meetings were battlegrounds of buzzwords. “Your critical parent is talking to my high D.”
Now, we are learning about generational differences. I need to lead Gen Xers differently than baby boomers. Millennials need more of this and less of that. And, what are leaders to do if they happen to have a baby boomer who is an early adopter, cares more about learning than a gold watch, uses Snapchat, and listens to Jay Z?” I recall a conversation-starting famous photo of pop singer David Bowie pushing a baby carriage beside his wife. She was dressed as a man; he was dressed as a woman. It was a dramatic demonstration of how confusing it can be when people don’t somehow fit into the neat boxes we have created for them.
All Stereotypes Are Limiting
I am a student of human behavior. I believe self-understanding is crucial to a well-lived life. And, I think leaders are influencers of people, not just a driver of results. Leading in the key of personality can orchestrate a harmonious, productive work environment. Great leaders never forget that people are complex and often unpredictable. Their work life is influenced, not just by the primary components of their life—family, career, and health—but also by their internal reaction to these components.
Leadership is not about the pursuit of assumptions. Leadership is about leading everyone using a set of values that reflect our higher selves. It is about authenticity, honesty, compassion and the drive to surface and celebrate the finest in others. It is also about a commitment to a purpose, a dedication to being a good steward of the resources for which we are responsible, and a remover of barriers that inhibit human potential from being unleashed. It is about leading for the long-term health of both the organization and the people who populate it.
Great leadership is recognizing people are different; each a unique creation. Great leaders view human diversity as a rich and valuable tapestry of talent and growth. They abhor decisions about anyone based on some ethnic, religious, cultural, or physical feature unrelated to high performance and excellence. When we reduce leadership to mechanical prescriptions with people sorted into neat categories, we seduce leaders into thinking that leading people is like programming computers. More importantly, we risk missing the drama of humanity and the potential for being amazed by it.
Learn about generational differences; it is a fascinating topic. It enriches our understanding of ourselves while it deepens our knowledge of others. Be careful of the ease with which our insights can breed stereotyping instead of appreciating; labeling instead of loving. Mark Twain said it well: “All generalizations are false, including this one!”
About the Author
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is the award-winning, best-seller Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. He can be reached at www.chipbell.com.