The Greatest Showman Provides the Blueprint for Inclusive Leadership That We Need Right Now

Your Business Innovation Plan Relies on Your Bias Mitigation Strategy

I don’t know about you, but stay-at-home orders have provided an opportunity for me and my family to revisit some of our favorite movies. One in particular, The Greatest Showman, is not only visually arresting and equipped with a phenomenal soundtrack, but it offers the fantastical escapism we needed to help recalibrate and relax. For those unfamiliar, the film is inspired by the life and times of P.T. Barnum and the creation of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Spoiler alert: The movie ends with Barnum standing amongst the ruins of the burned building that housed his circus. Instead of devising plans to physically rebuild, he reimagines the circus experience under a tent. Crisis required innovation.

I recognize that the film takes many liberties in the retelling of PT Barnum’s story and creates a positive gloss over a story that is much more complex – indeed, Barnum himself makes, and learns from, several leadership missteps during the movie. But I couldn’t help but notice the ways that the film underscored the importance of inclusive leadership during challenging times. And much like our current situation, The Greatest Showman demonstrates the need to leverage innovation within a business strategy.

Why is inclusion imperative to innovation?

Inclusion | Innovation

While no leader is perfect, including Barnum, we will focus on the inclusive leadership traits he demonstrated to highlight that need for innovation, while acknowledging that unmanaged bias can undermine leadership efforts.

4 Key Steps in the Blueprint for Inclusive Leadership

  1. Mitigate personal biases
  2. Recognize and seek out individuals for their unique talents
  3. Develop an environment of psychological safety and community
  4. Act with humility, empathy, and perspective

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1. Recognize and Seek Out Individuals for Their Unique Talents

As Barnum built the original “house of curiosities” he did not dive into the popular and well-fished “talent pools”. Instead, he looked at the core skills a person possessed (the Bearded Lady and her phenomenal voice, for example) and viewed unique characteristics as a value add, not a need to conform. He created an open forum for people who had been cast to the margins to fully express themselves, ultimately driving incredible success across the entire group.

2. Actively Mitigate Personal Biases and Seek Out New Perspectives

Given our nature to favor similarity, familiarity, and the “known”, particularly in moments of uncertainty and urgency, it takes intention to mitigate our biases and seek out the perspectives of those in our organizations who we don’t engage with on a regular basis. Leaders, take note: Failing to act against biases, to operate on instinct alone, will suffocate the innovation and imagination needed to steer through and beyond the challenges teams, including the current pandemic. Opportunities to do so are plentiful, with some ideas being:

  • Ensure your Return to Work Task Force is representative of various management levels, business functions and life experiences (e.g. parents, those who have previously worked remotely, employees commuting via public transportation, generational differences, etc.)
  • Solicit the input of Employee Resource Groups in employee engagement initiatives, R&D, and customer support ideas. The purpose of these groups often includes creating a safe community for employees with a shared identity. They also can provide innovative insight into how to reach new markets, reimagining how to support current customers and product innovation.
  • Create a “debater” (or devil’s advocate) role in meetings where critical business decisions are being made and rotate that responsibility – one of the benefits of diversity is to view the same challenge from another perspective and illuminate blind spots. Designating a role to present an opposing or alternative view mitigates group think. Alternating that role relieves the person who typically serves in that capacity from being pigeon holed as being negative.
  • Revisit your Implicit/Unconscious Bias training solution, and possibly redeploy it. While you may not have the bandwidth to rethink your training and development strategy at this moment; pairing the deployment of a scalable training solution to all employees (prioritizing people leaders) with supportive messaging from senior leadership will provide the skill set and expectation to act with intention.

3. Develop an environment of psychological safety and community

After an unfortunate fire destroys their community, the cast comes together in a bar to discuss how, even through all of his fumbles, Barnum managed to create a close community of people across a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Despite their differences, they felt connected to each other and loyal to the business they built together. Connectedness, community, and a sense of belonging are integral components of the inclusive culture that will breed innovative ideas.

Why is connection important?
Feeling psychologically safe and connected can help short circuit the fight, flight, or freeze response your employees often experience during times of change, which may hamper their productivity, attention span, and critical thinking skills. While there are issues outside of your control, there are ways to create a workplace culture continuity plan that fosters community and belonging:

  • Communicate regularly and with intentionality
  • Reimagine workplace traditions that bring employees together
  • Provide scalable education that reinforce your workplace policies and organizational values that promote respect, inclusivity, and civility

4. Act with Humility, Empathy, and Perspective

Through the course of the film, we see Barnum lose his way, abandon those who helped him build his empire, and prioritize fame over family. As we revisit him and the cast atop of the rubble of the circus in the final scene, you hear him admit to and apologize for disappointing the team. He takes in their feedback, hears their perspective, and imagines a new path forward together.

A recent study outlines six characteristics of inclusive leaders. Within that set of six, “the single most important trait generating a sense of inclusiveness is a leader’s visible awareness of bias”. But bias awareness alone isn’t sufficient to drive inclusion; there should be an authentic relationship between bias awareness, empathy, perspective, and humility.

In a time when employees are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and stress, leaders must recognize that “we are all weathering the same storm, but in different boats”—recently shared via social media. Among the many issues now impacting employees are being physically and emotionally distant; working remotely and navigating technology; fearing exposure while reporting to a worksite; experiencing increased harassment based on national origin; playing the role of caretaker, employee, or teacher while—in some cases, simultaneously—working in an unsafe environment. The list is endless. The list goes on and, more than likely, impacts your employees’ productivity.

Leaders Must Balance Business Decisions While Attending to Inclusion and Workplace Culture

  • Gather consistent feedback from mid-level managers, individual contributors, and other leaders about the morale of the organization; and communicating awareness of and empathy for the challenges that people are experiencing.
  • Stay attuned to national and international issues beyond the workplace and the pandemic. Your teams may be dealing with stressors from the earthquakes in Puerto Rico, recent tornadoes in the Southeast, or the high profile shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, in addition to the overarching stress everyone is experiencing.
  • Ensure that managers are checking in regularly with staff – both to help prioritize workload, develop work life sustainability plans, and check on well being.

As business leaders steer their organizations through unprecedented waters, The Greatest Showman offers key insights to necessary leadership competencies: mitigating biases, developing psychological safety and community, and acting with empathy, humility, and perspective. While these characteristics may feel adjacent to current priorities, they are critical in producing the innovation necessary to develop a sustainable business continuity plan.

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