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The Leadership the Future Requires: Insights From Ambassador Andrew Young

The Leadership the Future Requires: Insights From Ambassador Andrew Young

by Shawnette Rochelle

When Ambassador Andrew Young speaks about leadership, people listen. An esteemed civil rights activist, a former congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the former mayor of Atlanta who is responsible for bringing in $70 billion of new private investment to his city, Andrew Young's career exemplifies leadership. Recently, Young shared insights about diversity, leader deficiencies and decision-making during an interview at Gallup's global headquarters in Washington, D.C.

On Diversity

"We are decades ahead of anybody else in the world," Ambassador Young said when assessing the United States' progress in identifying and capturing the full diversity of talent available to the nation. He continued by cautioning that while progress has been substantial, "I don't think it is permanent, and I don't think we can sit back and take it for granted…Institutions have to see that [diversity] is a win-win situation" to prevent reversal of this progress.

Ambassador Young also offered his thoughts on specific organizations' diversity efforts. He commended the military and sports for taking the lead on fostering diversity, but highlighted universities as lagging, with churches lagging even further behind. Corporations, he insisted, must move beyond symbolic diversity gestures to address increasingly complex global challenges.

Referencing Jim Clifton's The Coming Jobs War, which projects a shortfall of 1.8 billion jobs for the 3 billion people who work or want to work, Young said this is an illustration of the increasing complexity corporations must be prepared to address. "Somehow, to solve those problems, you have to include all races and nations and gender. You can't run the world with just men."

On Deficiencies of Leaders

"The biggest mistake we make is we demonize our opponents or people who don't agree with us. And, we believe they're dumb. And that is absolutely ignorant." Leaders must respect their opponents and respect their right to be different, Young said. Rather than demonizing them, leaders should instead recognize them as "people who are brilliant, but just had different views."

The best leaders value diversity of opinion, particularly dissenting opinions. He illustrated this concept by comparing it to the dynamics within a marriage. As a newlywed, he quickly learned that "two opinions are better than one." This early lesson taught him a key tenet of leadership: the need to seek out and respect multiple opinions in all matters. Instead of feeling threatened, leaders should appreciate having their thinking challenged.

Marginalizing those with different views limits the progress the two parties might achieve and limits the growth that naturally occurs when leaders are exposed to diverse opinions. Moreover, as leaders seek to capture the full diversity of talent needed to address the complex future, being receptive to diverse opinions is necessary. Those with diverse backgrounds often see different facets of the same issue. If those opinions, whether reinforcing or dissenting, are demonized or marginalized, the inherent multiplier of diversity risks being lost to assimilation.

On Decision-Making

"The world is moving so fast that in order to keep up with the world, you have to be capable of radical, different thinking," Young offered. Addressing a common trait leaders exhibit, regardless of industry, he observed, "The higher you are in the operation, the more conservative you tend to be. Because the very nature of [your] job is to maintain the status quo and keep things growing slowly. See, [you] don't want [the business] to boom or bust. [Leaders] want to keep a steady growth path."

What, then, can leaders do to broaden their thinking beyond the status quo? Ambassador Young cited a role he filled for Dr. Martin Luther King as an effective model for leaders to employ. Serving as a visionary, Young advocated for positions on one extreme while others within the organization did the same for positions on the opposite extreme. Dr. King declared them all "certifiably insane," but he reinforced the value and importance of this structure when he said, "Andy, if you don't express your insanity as strongly as [the others] do, you put me in trouble." While Dr. King's final decisions would not be at either extreme, he valued the radical thinking and input that existed on the extremes because it ensured his decision-making incorporated the most complete option set.

Thus, Young summarized effective decision-making in the following manner: "…good decision-making is [when] there are people on opposite ends and…the leader has the opportunity to come down in the middle." This model does not work, however, if everyone's thinking -- leader included -- is on the extremes, or if everyone is seeking to preserve the status quo. Emotion must be removed from the equation in "a deliberate attempt to get people to think about the future."

Ambassador Young's counsel on diversity, deficiencies of leaders, and decision-making provides leaders and institutions with critical insights needed to navigate an increasingly uncertain future because, as he concluded, "The future is changing, and we're never prepared for it."

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