Professional and Alumni

Focus on Leadership

  • The Baggage We Bring from the Past

Frances E. Andrews

Reprinted with permission.

Effective leadership for the world today and for the world of tomorrow is characterized by people who can relate to, understand, embrace, recognize, appreciate and value differences as strengths. Trustworthiness, trusting others, making an "all out" effort to understand differences, searching for the common human element, and building relationship are the characteristics of effective leaders. Understanding and respecting the diversity of people's gifts is the first crucial step toward developing trust between each other and building the kind of relationship critical to success in the new century.

For those of us who aspire to effective leadership, the first prerequisite to building this kind of relationship is to know ourselves including "the baggage we bring from the past! " Self discovery evolves over time and requires effort on our part. It is fluid, dynamic, and ever changing. For most of us, this process continues throughout our lives and is furthered by numerous interactions and relationship with others. In Valuing Diversity (1995), Lewis Griggs notes: "The degree to which we are able to form relationship with others is a measure of our own personal growth. We can become our fullest selves only through relationship and through reflecting on our responses to the relationships we form." (page 215)

Too, self-knowledge is the foundation of any contribution we can hope to make to other people and it is an essential component of our personal and professional integrity. We must become conscious of the energy patterns routed in our own history and in our own culture. We must identify our own attitudes, beliefs, values, motives, actions, shortcomings, skills, talents, and abilities. Only then can we understand how our own prejudices and past experiences (our "baggage from the past") influence our perceptions of reality, lead us into stereotypical thinking and behaviors, and prevent us from learning about and forming relationship with individuals who are different.

Culture is our way of knowing and doing. Our culture of origin greatly impacts the lens through which we see the world. Each of us grew up with a set of cultural messages we acquired from our families, our environments, our peers, and other sources. Throughout this process, most of us did not consider questioning the validity of the information we were absorbing and making our own. In Diversity Issues in the Workplace (1995), Frances Kendall states: "We simply took on the attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes about men and women, about people who are culturally and racially different from ourselves, about age, about work, and about what is and what is not considered normal." (page 83) Many of us do not recognize that our culturally defined ways of doing things are so deeply embedded that we cannot imagine anyone thinking about doing anything any other way.

Myers and Spite, in Optimal Theory in the Psychology of Human Diversity (1994), conclude that "...exploring the roles of culture, identity, and oppression in human diversity can help us grow toward individual and collective wholeness. In this growth, we will place less emphasis on the superficial diversity markers and focus more on the substantive aspects of humanity, having to do with who we are in terms of our character, ethics, values, and morals rather than on the way we appear superficially." (page 112)

In each of our cultures, beliefs are necessary to make our lives understandable. It is through these beliefs that we come to know the nature of our society and the meaning of the things that occur within it. Obviously, beliefs affect our relationships, fuel our thinking and direct our behavior and our emotions. Often, beliefs that we hold are the result of our own cultural conditioning and determine whether we will seek rapport with individuals who are different from ourselves. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, most of us are trapped by our own belief systems, our own unexamined values, our past experiences, and the emotions of fear, anger and mistrust that have been frozen over our lifetimes--"the baggage we bring from the past."

Too, many of us fail to recognize that we function on three levels of interaction at the same time: the personal level, the interpersonal level, and the organizational or systemic level. The personal level is the level on which we hold all of our attitudes, biases, and prejudices about everything--work, play, school, race, gender, religion, etc. It is from this level that those thoughts we have while in the shower or while commuting to the office come. Erroneously, we believe that these are private and when we walk into our workplaces, we hang these in the closet!

Our second level of interaction is at the interpersonal level--the level on which we interact with each other. The personal and interpersonal levels are so interconnected that there is no way to separate them--each is reflected in the other even though we would prefer that this did not happen.

The organizational or systemic level is the third level of our interaction. This is the level on which we function in an organization--at work, in professional organizations, etc. It is in this environment that most of us spend a large part of our lives! This environment includes the people, the rules, the functions of the people and the organization, the way decisions are made, etc. Our actions at this level reflect the other two levels--our verbal and nonverbal actions communicate something to the people around us. Messages about our values, attitudes, etc. at the personal and interpersonal levels of interaction are reflected at the organizational level whether or not we mean them to be.

In a discussion of the Ubuntu philosophy in Applying African Philosophy to Diversity Training (1995), Lente-Louise Louw indicated that "...the baggage we bring from the past, combined with the unrealistic expectations we have for the future, are very effective in keeping us from being a fully participating member of society and from forming the relationship with others needed for effective leadership. We allow our preconceptions, our past associations, and our judgments to distort most of our present interactions." (page 166) The sad thing about this is many of us do not even realize what is occurring!

Knowing as much as we can about our own ethnocentricism helps us recognize how our ignorance of and discomfort with differences literally prevents us from seeing others as "fully human." Intrapersonal and interpersonal factors and sociocultural history influence the development of personal prejudice and discrimination. Our attitudes and behaviors toward people are in part determined by the historical legacy of our interactions with people who are different.

Unless we have a clear and accurate picture of our style of interaction, our values about communicating, our cultural biases about openness, honesty, conflict, language, and about how our biases affect interactions, we will not be able to forge a meaningful relationship with others.

An effective relationship, regardless of the culture of the relators, has several characteristics. These were identified by Charles Truax and Robert Carkhuff (page 172, Griggs and Louw). Effective relationship is one in which the individuals involved:

1. Are reasonably well integrated, non defensive, and authentic in their relationship encounters;

2. Provide a nonthreatening, safe, trusting, and secure atmosphere by reason of their mutual and unconditional regard for each other;

3. Are able to understand each other and their relationship on a moment-to-moment basis.

Different cultures build relationships differently. Individuals who grow up in the same environment more easily develop relationship than those who grow up in different environments. In part, this is due to the fact that those who share the same environment share certain cues, customs, behaviors, communication styles, and ways of understanding that environment. In other words, they have something in common.

Our personal history, childhood experiences, family and ethical backgrounds, and work experiences are but a few of the issues that impact the type and quality of relationship we build with other people. Understanding and respecting the diversity of peoples' personal gifts in finding areas where there is commonality of perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, and expectations are the first steps in forming relationships with people who are different. The bases of enhancing relationship, regardless of the culture from which we come or in which we live, are trust, respect, and shared goals.

Learning to value diversity, to become conscious of our ways of relating to each other and their ways of relating to us, does not come easily to most of us nor is it something that can be imposed from the outside. In Valuing Relationship (1995), Lewis Brown Griggs sums the interrelationship of knowing ourselves and building relationship with others as follows: "Knowing myself is what allows me to know, understand, and value the diversity of others so that I can build trust with them. With more trust comes the ability to communicate more clearly, to problem solve and network more effectively, and to realize the value of synergistic relationships and productive interdependency. Together, investing in my relationship with myself and enhancing my relationship with others are important insurance policies against lost opportunities." (page 210)

References Cited

Griggs, L. B. (1995). Valuing Diversity: Where From...Where To? In L. B. Griggs & L. L. Louw (Eds.), Valuing Diversity: New Tools for a New Reality. McGraw Hill, Inc: New York.>

Kendall, F. E. (1995). Diversity Issues in the Workplace. In L. B. Griggs & L. L. Louw (Eds.), Valuing Diversity: New Tools for a New Reality. McGraw Hill, Inc: New York. Myers, L. J. & Spite, S. L. (1994).>

Optimal Theory in the Psychology of Human Diversity. In E. J. Trickett, R. J. Watts, & D. Birman (Eds.), Human Diversity: Perspectives on People in Context. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco.>

Louw, L. L. (1995). Ubuntu: Applying African Philosophy to Diversity Training. In L. B. Griggs & L. L. Louw (Eds.), Valuing Diversity: New Tools for a New Reality. McGraw Hill, Inc: New York.>

Griggs, L. B. (1995). Valuing Relationship: The Heart of Valuing Diversity. In L. B. Griggs & L. L. Louw (Eds.), Valuing Diversity: New Tools for a New Reality. McGraw Hill, Inc: New York.