Leadership : Edgewalking: The Emerging New Century Leadership Paradigm

Cynthia Kemper is founder of the Denver-based Edgewalkers Institute. She draws on 25-plus years of organizational responsibilities and consulting to offer a wide range of dynamic programs, forums, services, writings and public speaking tailored for today's leader. Cynthia was also a former international business columnist for The Denver Post.

The Edgewalkers Institute is a virtual incubator for focused, thoughtful leaders committed to personal and professional evolution.


As our world grows increasingly complex and, in many cases divided, the need for global leaders who understand and embrace the gifts of diversity, has become more critical than ever. Without more executive, government and geopolitical leaders — who not only understand what it means to honor the true diversity and differences of our world, but walk the talk — we're in for an exceedingly rough ride ahead.

But "walking one's talk" cannot be achieved merely through diversity training, reading culturegrams, or attending corporate diversity fairs. Something much deeper and internal is required. Something that goes to the roots of who we are as people. Something that taps one's innate well of courage, allowing him or her to live at the edges of difference — and to learn and grow through personal exploration and experience, as opposed to textbooks.

In other words, living in a diverse world — or leading a diverse workforce — is more than a mental construct, a memorized list of cultural differences, or a willingness to be tolerant. It's about examining how well we function at the margins and interfaces of life where divergent ways of being and believing meet and collide.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago states, "It seems to me that tolerance, like diversity, amounts to moral flag-waving. No one is for tolerance as a general value, because in any situation that actually arises, one's tolerance is extended only to those groups you wish to include."

In other words, tolerance — and diversity — are merely simple constructs; intellectual work-arounds for helping people see that even though we are not the same, we should accept our differences to achieve societal stability and the bottom line. But this is no longer enough in such a complex, conflicted world. We need to do more.

Fish concludes, "What tolerance is, is a solution to a political problem, a policy usually urged in a culture which is no longer monolithic."

Serge Schmemann in his book "The Burden of Tolerance in a World of Division" suggests, "Tolerance was not always so burdened. To tolerate means little more than live and let live. Just try vowing to 'tolerate, honor and obey' next time you marry."

He continues, "Toleration entered the political lexicon with the waning of religious dogma and rise of humanism, and applied specifically to religion. The idea was not to add Tolerance, or Diversity, to the many truth claims, but to allow everyone to enjoy their favorite truth in safety. As Thomas Jefferson told the Virginia House of Delegates in 1776: 'It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Perhaps it's time we take the ideas of tolerance and diversity to a higher level. To look at our personal responsibility as leaders in a new way. In an increasingly multicultural, multilateral world, we must move beyond tolerance and diversity training — and their natural limitations — to the deeper questions of "Who are we?" and "What do we believe as individual leaders?"

As part of an increasingly interconnected humanity here on plant Earth, our willingness and ability to sit in the fires of friction — to hear and feel another's life experience and point of view with patience and compassion — is far more critical than intellectual learning. The truth is, we have not yet tapped the immense benefits of dialogue and common experience as tools to further our diversity objectives. Nor have we been collectively willing to live at the confluence where cultures, worldviews and religious doctrines meet — while learning firsthand how to live and work together in a truly productive and inclusive way.

This is where the seemingly simple idea of "walking our talk" meets modern day reality — and often fails.

But, our corporate leaders must take the first steps into this unknown often unpredictable territory at the frontiers. To assure long term success, our leaders must learn to live at the edges first, before they can expect others to do the same.

It has been my experience, however, that corporate leaders are the last to truly embrace diversity at a personal level for one simple reason — they are so well protected from it. An executive's everyday world is generally narrow, conservative, financially stable and filled with like-minded supporters and peers. Rarely do our leaders fraternize with their blue-collar construction crew, play tennis with their Latino salesforce in the inner city, attend Friday prayers with their Muslim accountant or attorney, or hang out with the brainiacs and techies populating R&D. They are protected from these experiences by layer after layer of invisible walls which keep them from truly seeing and feeling the harsh reality of our deeply diverse and divided world — not to mention the new chasms rapidly forming at the edges.

Not until we see our leaders cross the boundaries purposely constructed to protect them from the outside world, will we reap the benefits from a genuinely maximized diverse workforce. Without this shift, the lawsuits, silent-dissent, compliance [as opposed to genuine cooperation] and tension between socio-economic, cultural, gender, racial, religious, physical, and IQ vs. EQ differences will continue to challenge and disrupt our businesses.

Thus, I propose that leading in the 21st century world will be less about tolerance, and more about the development of deeply honed character traits like listening, caring, empathy and compassion in our leaders. Traits better suited for the less orderly, more chaotic, uncertain times we're now living in.

Let's face it. Our pragmatic financial justification for honoring diversity, can no longer effectively sustain our objectives. Further, our fragmented Newtonian-Cartesian view of the world is collapsing from within, by necessity. In our increasingly complex business environments, we are being forced to look more and more at the whole — as opposed to the parts — in order to survive. Indeed, a holistic view is critical to understanding the interrelationships between our corporate vision and strategies, market shifts and how we maximize the diversity of our workplace.

We are living in a new reality. Therefore, if our inner lives give the diversity of our world no authentic meaning; if our intentions do not come from the head — as well as the heart — then our efforts will be unsustainable.

In the end, leaders can "talk" or "act" tolerant, but others will know the truth. If we intellectualize embracing diversity — but don't feel it in our gut — our employees will respond to our deeper motivations at a subconscious level. The result will be an innate inability to trust leadership — and that spells the ultimate death of success in any company.

Thus, training can only go so far to achieving a tolerant, friendly work environment for every race, culture, mindset and creed. In the end, our leaders have to feel and embrace difference in their bones. And that means some changes in how we perceive leadership at its very core.

This where an emerging new leadership paradigm—conceptualized by the metaphor of Edgewalking — can make a huge difference in helping us envision a new way to lead.

Arthur Levitt, the former S.E.C. chairman describes how leadership must change for today's global environments in an interview with Charlie Rose in October 2002. Clearly onto something important, he states: "We're going to have a whole different kind of leader over the next ten years.... thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative listeners."

Levitt is already envisioning the new frontier at the borderlands of a diverse workforce. And edgewalking, by necessity, is the new emerging leadership paradigm he inadvertently describes for our times.

What is edgewalking? Well, the idea began thousands of years ago with the invention of maps. When maps were first created, they were drawn to define the edges of the countries. Thus, edges don't always fall off into the void. More often, they butt up against another edge — an edge of difference — and that is where the challenge and opportunities begin for all of us as leaders. If we are not able to function gracefully and effectively at the edges, we will not be able to lead in an increasingly diverse world.

In other words, edgewalking is less about cutting new ground, and more about a set of skills, mindsets and abilities honed to succeed at the margins, interfaces and intersections between conflicting, divergent cultures, perspectives and worldviews.

History reminds us, that conflict naturally arises at the edges where friction created by two different ways of being chaff up against each other. This produces heat and tension. But in many cultures — particularly in North America — we're uncomfortable sitting in the fire that results from the meeting of divergent worldviews.

"We don't have to like, let alone love, those we tolerate," explains Jack Kornfield, Buddhist author in the September 2000 edition of Shambhala Sun. "The truth is that even spiritual teachers do not always like one another; nor do they necessarily get along.

He adds, "Many respected Zen masters and swamis, ajahns and sheikhs, lamas and rabbis have powerful disagreements. Some have a distaste for one another's teaching or style. Yet the wise among them embody a genuine tolerance, knowing that another person's reasons may be invisible to us, that another person's way is as worthy of respect as our own."

Indeed, we don't like the heat, so we avoid the edges. And when we can't avoid them, we label them in pejorative ways to make them go away — deviant, out-of-step, trouble-maker, and whistle-blower are only a few labels tacked on the Edgewalkers already working as  translators of difference at the edges.

But this is an unproductive strategy, for it's only at the edges that new paradigms are formed. New paradigms of business that may include product development, expanded markets or creative ways to communicate with new customers.

Since innovative ideas and new solutions generally emerge from the margins — and rarely from the center of prevailing paradigms—learning to live at the confluence between different points of view, experiences, languages, cultures, religions etc. is actually the only way to stay ahead of the competition. For a leader to tap the future, he or she must live at the frontiering margins. There is no other way. And the same dynamics play out in diverse workplaces.

For it's at the ragged edges — where difference meets — that the greatest opportunity for dynamic, motivated, energized workforces exist.

"A functioning democracy not only acknowledges that conflicts without end are woven into the fabric of human society," shares James MacGregor Burns, author of Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness, "but attempts to turn them to vital and progressive purpose."

Edgewalkers are the translators, bridge-builders and communicators in a rapidly transforming world. They lead the way. They pioneer new paths, connect divergent worlds, and make the hard decisions that create a better, more fulfilling, safe and prosperous future for us all. In essence, they are the creators of our world. So the support and development of Edgewalkers is paramount — for their leadership, presence and contribution are the key to managing in an increasingly uncertain, changing world.

Edgewalkers are also courageous leaders who take stands, speak out, and challenge the status quo — with integrity, authenticity, and class. Because our world has rapidly outgrown much of what we knew and depended upon in the past, we're faced with tumultuous times of transformation in the months and years to come. Here Edgewalkers take the lead in understanding, envisioning and implementing these changes, while guiding, serving and reassuring those who follow.

Edgewalkers stand at the "edge" between two worlds, and make sense of them both. They live in the past — and the future — while thoughtfully applying their wisdom to the present.

Bottom line? A more globally integrated, interconnected approach to our diverse humanity and life/work choices is necessary for our corporate survival. Thus, at this pivotal point in history, a new leadership paradigm must be defined and birthed at the edges. One where thoughtful, globally-minded, well-rounded Edgewalkers — who come from the head as well as the heart — are heard, trusted, respected and followed .

As we speed our way into a new and very different century, it will be our leaders — and how they think about difference—that will determine the success or failure of our effort to live as truly interconnected beings in a diverse global world.

Copyright 2003 Cynthia Kemper


Cynthia can be reached at http://www.edgewalkers.com or via e-mail at ckemper@edgewalkers.com.

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