Leveraging Difference

by jon on February 14, 2012

I am currently reading a fantastic book called Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. One particular quote in the book really struck me about why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership created a movement. Since we are all reminded of his incredible legacy every January, it is interesting how I came across this quote right around his birthday.


Kegan and Lahey discuss how “Ron Heifetz once wrote that Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership brilliance was his ability to reconstruct the civil rights movement from a struggle between white people and black people (which divided the nation) to a struggle between America’s national ideals as represented in the Constitution and her then-current realization of those ideals-a struggle in which, at least potentially, all could join together.” It is extraordinary to me how Dr. King re-framed a very difficult issue into something that could unite us. I think I read this quote five times in a row and couldn’t stop sending it to friends.

I could certainly spend a lifetime discussing Dr. King’s amazing accomplishments, but I want to just focus on what I learned from this particular concept. The idea that we could spend more time finding common ground with each other instead of engaging in conflict.  We are all different by race, age, gender, job, background, education, etc., so what if we used these differences as learning opportunities to make better decisions?

It’s like this little puzzle picture below. If I am the little red guy, look how much larger my world is when I am connected to others who are different from me. Without this connection, I am just a lonely puzzle piece…


A professor up at the Darden School of Business named Dr. Martin Davidson talks about a similar concept about why “diversity efforts fail and how leveraging difference can succeed.” I just love this concept of re-framing the idea of diversity to one of “leveraging difference.” Dr. Davidson talks about how too many companies and individuals just want to “look diverse” which is completely missing the point. On the flip side, if we started being intentional about leveraging our differences we may just create deeper relationships, more understanding and greater success in our lives and organizations.  It’s like what Dr. King did. He created a shared vision that all kinds of people could get behind. Then he leveraged difference to achieve transformational change.

Dr. Davidson’s ideas made me re-assess several organizations I work with to start figuring out ways we could make diversity building efforts more productive and meaningful. It has drastically improved our decision making, and people have appreciated talking openly about diversity in a really thoughtful way. I am also trying to spend more time connecting and reaching out to people with different backgrounds and perspectives in my community. This way I can continue to create learning opportunities for myself and not just talk about these ideas, but be an example of them. As Gandhi says, “you must be the change you want to see in the world.”

So, how could you start leveraging difference more in your personal and professional life? Sure, we want to spend time around like minded people who have similar interests, but connecting with a wealth of cultures and backgrounds may open us up to ideas we never thought possible. A world in which our differences actually make us more connected. I bet Dr. King would like this world.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki February 15, 2012 at 7:47 am

Great post with great ideas. Thanks for sharing.


jon February 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

Thanks Nikki. I really enjoyed writing this one!


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