Just Like Me

May 9, 2009

7 min read


We all have gifts and personal differences. Remembering we all come from the family of Adam helps us to deal with cultural and racial diversity in the workplace.


"When shall we learn that we are all related one to the other, that we are all members of one body?"
-- Helen Keller


On June 5, 1996, I gave a 15-minute official speech at the last global United Nations conference of the millennium. I never expected that the trip and speech would also change my life.

Perfectly placed in a city that spans two continents, the Istanbul conference was a rare chance to meet and mingle with 25,000 representatives from around the world. Most important, those seven days gave me the opportunity to spend time with leaders from Africa, with people who looked very different from me. People like Ghanaian Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, the gifted, compassionate mayor of Accra's three million people, put a face on the world for me -- a face on a world I had never visited.

What struck me was how Nat and other Africans I met had the same dreams as me. We all wanted a "good" life with a family, food, shelter, and solid education. And you know what? We all wanted a few little extras, too, wrapped into a life that made sense to us, one that fit into some larger picture, a worthy cause.

"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

At a party one night, a black South African Jew told us a story of three men answering the question, "How can you tell when night ends and day begins?"

The first man responded: "When I can distinguish the olive trees from the fig trees. Then I know that night is over and day has begun."

The second man answered, "When I can see the forms of the animals across the Serengeti, I know that the darkness is leaving and the light of day arriving."

The last man who replied was renown for his wisdom. "When we see a black woman and a white woman, and call them both 'sister,' when we see a poor man and a rich man, and call them both 'brother,' then the darkness of night has lifted and the light of day has come."

The next evening, an Indian Hindu recounted how Albert Einstein was fascinated by Mahatma Gandhi. He watched newsreel after newsreel of Gandhi's doings in India. Having seen Gandhi greet people in the street with his hands placed together, as if in prayer, and with a bow, he wondered what Gandhi was saying (newsreels had no sound in those days).

Einstein wrote Gandhi. The reply was one word: "Namastae." Einstein wrote again to ask the meaning of this Hindu word Namastae. Gandhi replied: "I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the place in you of light, love, truth, peace, and wisdom. I honor the place in you where, when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there's only one of us."


"I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
-- the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Last week some friends and I were discussing a Midrash. (Midrash is an explanation of Biblical text and a commentary on it.) In this Midrash, the great Rabbi Akiva comments on Leviticus 19:18, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, saying, "This is the great principle of the Torah." However, Ben Azzai disagrees, claiming that an even greater principle is Genesis 5:1, "This is the book of the generations of Adam."

We looked up the Genesis passage and found another Biblical chronology of generations. What is Ben Azzai's point? Cynthia got it immediately: "Here he is, 1900 years ago, saying the same thing as you realized in Istanbul: 'We are all from one family.'"

"This we know - all things are connected like the blood which unites one family." -- Chief Seattle

After Istanbul, I began retelling stories like these in my executive leadership courses to illustrate the power of giving, helping and listening. We discuss corporate stories to illustrate this value: That to lead others -- as well as to lead ourselves -- we should begin from a place of commonalties, from a spirit of community and companionship. Doing just that transforms the nature, enjoyment and outcome of our work.

While this may seem easy or obvious, for those of us born in America, we are raised on a diet of individualism, personal freedom and self-satisfaction. Teamwork is a buzzword, not an ingrained value, as we tend to start from a value of separateness, not "connectedness."

When you begin at a place of commonality, you develop work communities that respect differences in style and opinions. You create a workplace where people feel important and, feeding off that strength, find ways of defusing conflicts with colleagues and meeting the challenges of competitors.

Remember: We all fear rejection, we all thirst for acceptance, and we all need our self-confidence lifted to feel good about ourselves and others.


"Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together."
-- Vesta Kelly

Below are three tips on how to embrace diversity:


1. Be Open: Acknowledge That We All Have Prejudices

To attract and retain the most highly talented workforce, leaders need to create a work environment that allows people of all types feel comfortable, happy and supported in their development.

I didn't grow up with many Blacks. It wasn't until I participated in a UN conference in Istanbul that I spent many days with leaders from Black Africa. So, whether I like it or not, Blacks have been "different" to me. By recognizing this truth, I've been able to become, hopefully, more supportive of my new friends and co-workers in a diverse work environment.

2. Be Careful: Like Hire Like

Corporate research has consistently found that diverse groups are most capable of solving complex business problems -- the most common type facing high-level executives today. Without realizing it consciously, many of us hire people like ourselves when what we really need are people with complementary skills. Successful executives overcome these natural tendencies and traditional channels of recruitment to create a team that reflects and celebrates differences.

3. Be Aware: "Them" is "Us"

Thousands of professionals ask me each year to help them lead a more fulfilled, integrated life. They want to bring their values to work, to be one integrated person, the same person, all the time, in each phase of their work and life. I answer that to have a fulfilling career we need to see the world as one and treat it as such. If not, we will have the same problem internally, in our own attempts to harmonize our material, emotional, social and spiritual needs. As one of my heroes, Muhammad Ali, once said in explaining his philosophy for a fulfilling life (in the shortest commencement speech on record): "Me. We."

Last month I listened to a radio show put on by a Palestinian Arab and a Jewish Israeli. It's called, "Just Like You." The show explores similarities. Think I might play it at my next leadership seminar, or UN Conference. After all, most of us think we are pretty common people with uncommon problems. But the truth is that we are each people with special gifts, and, of course, common, universal problems -- challenges met best together.


"Why do I stand here? I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly force ourselves to look at things differently. The world looks different from up here. If you don't believe it, stand up here and try it. All of you. Take turns."
-- Dead Poet's Society


To read more about the power of building a company based on the principle of interconnectedness, read the life story of Judy Wicks, renowned restauranteur, in Chapter 3, "Take Your Place at the Table of Life" of Dr. Albion's New York Times' Best Seller, Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Life (Warner Books, 2000). The first chapter and excerpts are available on his Making a Life, Making a Living® Website at http://www.makingalife.com/ml2/index.com.

Next Steps