The REAL Meaning of Diversity


Many years ago, when I was in the U.S. Navy, from time to time, I would babysit my friends’ 4-year-old son, Justin. He was very smart for his age and also very wise.

One sunny day, we decided to take a trip to the local Dairy Queen ice cream shop. As we were driving down Blanding Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida, he turned to me and sadly said, “Uncle Spark Plug, I’m sorry.” Quite surprised, I asked, “Sorry for what, Justin?”

He then replied, “I’m sorry that you’re brown.”

I was a bit taken aback. What did he mean … “I’m sorry that you’re brown?” What did this little boy already know about the society he lived in?

So … why another post about diversity?

Because it’s necessary! Or as my Latino brothers and sisters would say, “Es necesario or por qué es necesario!”

But before I say anything else about diversity, let me answer the question I’m sure many of you are probably asking yourselves, and that is, “How’d you get the name “Spark Plug?”

Well, about 25 years ago, I used to work for a guy named John Smith, yep that was his name. He had a multi-million dollar sporting goods company and I was his top salesman. He would always tell me, “Man, with your energy and enthusiasm, you’re ‘The Spark Plug.'” At the time, I didn’t know that another definition for spark plug was a person who inspires or energizes, I just knew the name sounded ‘right,’ and the rest is Spark Plug history.

Let’s get back to the word diversity … but I don’t want to stop there because knowing what this word means is not enough. So, I want to take it a step further – I want to talk about embracing diversity.

Why is embracing diversity so important? Well, to begin with, because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. And why is it the ‘right’ thing to do? Because when it comes to diversity, there’s really only two choices, chaos or community.

I think we can all agree that we would much rather have community, but it seems to me that a lot of the diversity training in the past has lead to chaos. Just think about it for a minute. For years, many of the so-called diversity experts claimed that tolerance was the best way to deal with people from different walks of life.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be tolerated. You don’t bring out the best in someone when you just tolerate them. I love to look up words and when I looked up tolerate, one definition said, “To put up with someone, not especially liked.” That sounds like something many of us do with our in-laws. No one wants to be tolerated.

Let’s look at another word associated with diversity – “ethnic.” Now, when you look up the word “ethnic” in the dictionary, the first definition you’ll see is “heathen” – when you look up “heathen,” one definition you will find is “strange, uncivilized.”

These are not words that promote community. These words promote separation. If we truly want community, I believe we’re going to have to learn to appreciate and embrace people for who and what they are, and not what we wish they could be. To “appreciate” means to recognize and be grateful for. To “embrace” means to accept readily. These are the words that promote community, not words such as tolerate or ethnic.

When I think about diversity, I’m reminded of the prophetic words Theodore Roosevelt wrote many decades ago. He declared, “This will not be a good nation for any of us, unless we learn to make it a better nation for all of us.” And that’s what diversity is all about, making life better for all of us, not just certain groups of people.

And when I say everyone, I mean just that …  everyone without regard to race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, physical challenges, etc. When it comes to diversity, we can’t afford to have tunnel vision. Everyone must feel as if they are a part of the team. Diversity is not just a nice idea, it’s something we must put into action every single day. Diversity is not only about different people, it’s about different ideas. It’s about differences in thinking and behavior that can help firms compete in this global economy.

It’s important to note here that organizations will not experience the benefits of diversity, if all of their diverse members think and behave the same way. Differences in world views or differences in approaches to problem-solving are what organizations need to thrive in this rapidly changing world.

Giving people from different demographic backgrounds access to a job in your organization is just the beginning of diversity. If we really want to reap the benefits of diversity, we must give these same people an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and also give them an opportunity to contribute ideas that can help the organization succeed. Most important, they must also receive the training and get the skills that will keep them competitive in the marketplace. This is truly what embracing diversity in the 21st Century is all about – never forgetting that everyone has something to offer.

So, what does it really take to embrace diversity? I believe it first takes a desire to do the right thing. And the right thing is embracing humanity in all of its forms because after all, we’re all human beings. Someone once said, “We go farther faster, when we go together.”

We must be committed to making diversity work.

The word “commitment” isn’t a popular word. In today’s American culture, we like everything right now, right away and today. But as we all know, anything worthwhile will require a commitment. From learning a second language or starting a physical fitness program, we’re going to have to be committed.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about the great violinist, Izthak Perlman. After one of his amazing concerts, a young lady walked up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Perlman, you’re so great! I would give my life to play as well as you do.”

Mr. Perlman looked up from his wheelchair and softly replied, I have given my life.”

We may not have to give our lives when it comes to making diversity work, but we must be committed to it and that commitment must start with the people at the top. Because if the commitment to embracing diversity is not there, then it’s only lip service. Unless the top people are committed to making diversity work, it will not be effective. Commitment or buy-in at the top is vitally important. Leaders must make it a priority when it comes to making diversity work.

I honestly believe diversity is rooted in the organization’s culture. Leaders should have the attitude that says, “If we don’t do it, it won’t be good for the organization.” Leaders must take a stand for making diversity work. When employees see top leadership committed to making diversity work, by walking the talk – they’ll soon follow the leader. Diversity isn’t about leaving people out, it’s about bringing them in.

Leadership must also promote diversity at every level of the organization, from the stockroom to the boardroom. Quite frankly, diversity is a way of life. Differences in thinking and behavior is a good thing. Genius has been defined as the ability to think in new directions.

So … begin to embrace diversity because diversity is normal. It is not wise to look for everyone to think or act the same way as you do. If you fail to embrace diversity, you can never reach your full potential. You will never know what you could have achieved in this life if you never reach out to embrace diversity.

This is an excerpt from Spark Plug’s “Embracing Diversity in the 21st Century” speech given to the Niagara Falls Transportation Authority in Niagara Falls, New York.

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