Blair Braverman is a big deal in the world of adventure dogsledding. One of her dogs is named Hari (after Haricot Vert). He is an Alaskan Huskie, bred to be strong, fast and incredibly healthy. But one of the few afflictions that can affect this breed is blindness. And at the age of three, Hari went blind. By this time, he was already trained as a sled dog, and like his 32 canine cohorts, he still loved to run. So Blair continued to race him.
Several years ago, Blair and her team had nearly finished a dogsled race when a whiteout blizzard swept in. She couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of her face, and the dogs brought the sled to a grinding halt. Unable to see the trail before them, the dogs were unwilling to push on. As the snow fell hard and fast, Blair tried swapping out her lead dog, hoping that one of her team might be intrepid enough to lead the other dogs onward through the storm. A little voice inside her head said, “Hari can do it! Hari will lead the team.”
With the storm worsening, she hitched blind Hari to the front of the sled. Tail wagging, he began taking slow, exaggerated steps forward into the blizzard. He gradually picked up speed and, trusting that Hari was in charge, the other dogs simply followed. Says Blair: “Hari couldn’t see, so the whiteout conditions didn’t bother him. And since he could smell the trail, he trusted his sense and was more than happy to lead.” Hari led Blair and her team out of the storm and over the finish line. If she hadn’t believed that he was still a capable sled dog—even with his disability—she might’ve gotten stuck for hours and had to await rescue. What made Hari different also made him valuable.
Difference as strength
I sometimes give workshops to companies on team-building and one of the topics we discuss is “diversity.” How to leverage and celebrate our differences in order to build more productive teams. My experience has taught me that when a team begins to all look alike, it can suffer from groupthink and appear “non-inclusive” of new ideas and people. A lack of diversity in a team leads to a lack of diverse viewpoints; a lack of varied viewpoints leads to a very narrow outlook. The metaphorical “echo chamber” arises because it’s simply impossible to understand or empathize with experiences different from our own.
One of the tools we use to explore this phenomenon is called The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and I find it to be a helpful way to open up conversations about diversity. Based in neuroscience, this system is designed to show groups how their unique preferences can enhance the overall team. The ways in which individual members think, communicate and collaborate are all explored. HBDI creates a bridge to help people understand their own tendencies, and to see how these may differ from others. It can be both hilarious and enlightening to see how two people can see the exact same thing – entirely differently.
It’s well established that more diverse teams enjoy tremendous advantages, making them more adaptable, more innovative and more competitive. A recent study cited in the Wall Street Journal shows that companies with diverse leadership teams often post bigger profit margins. The Harvard Business Review shared research about how diversity drives innovation. Forbes has reported on how diversity and inclusion lead to better decision-making in the workplace. So this is not just touchy-feely, politically correct stuff. It’s valuable advice that’s proven profitable in the modern marketplace.
Thinking across the spectrum
As human beings, we are still hardwired to be wary of “different.” When someone doesn’t think the same way as we do, we feel at odds, and it can be hard to overcome that instinct. But there is also beauty and value in people who think, look and act very differently than we do.
Perhaps a good example is Temple Grandin, the legendary animal behaviorist who revolutionized the American cattle industry. When she was a child, Grandin was diagnosed as “severely autistic” and not much was expected of her. But with the right education and guidance, she slowly learned to embrace her different brain which allowed her to “think in pictures.” Her usual perception revolutionized the way cattle are handled and slaughtered in this country. Today, she is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and one of the strongest advocates for people on the autism spectrum. In 2010, HBO made a movie about her life. Without autism, it’s also doubtful we would know of people like Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Mozart or Nikola Tesla.
I don’t know what makes for the perfect team (or marriage or union). But I know it probably involves people who are very different from us: varying races, ages, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What if there are Temple Grandins in your organization who are uniquely equipped to see what others cannot, but are being overlooked because they’re so different? Is there a potential “lead dog” in waiting, idling for the right conditions to shine? Diversity is not just a buzzword, it’s also our greatest asset.