By Paul Robinson

Originally published in the May-June 2019 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

Editor’s Note: In today’s diverse communities, it’s important to be able to understand and communicate with people from various backgrounds and cultures. It’s especially important when you’re a leader in your city. Paul Robinson, consultant and facilitator at the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, will lead a pre-conference workshop at the League of Minnesota Cities’ 2019 Annual Conference called “Intercultural Development & Communication.” In this session, Robinson will focus on increasing cultural self-awareness, deepening cross-cultural understanding, and adapting your communication approach to be more effective or responsive. Participants will learn a useful framework for effective leadership. The following article discusses the essential elements of effective leadership, and the important role that cross-cultural communication plays.

As a leader in your city, you’re always looking for ways to be more effective, but it can be a challenge—especially as most cities’ populations are rapidly changing and becoming more diverse. In this environment, effective leadership requires self-discovery, meaningful relationships, and self-care.


Self-discovery comes from taking time to reflect on who we are, where we’re from, and who and what matters most to us. Life experiences (positive, neutral, negative) help shape and inform who we become.

Sometimes, it can be uncomfortable for people to talk or think about themselves. At times, it’s easier to focus on projects, climbing the organizational ladder, or leading a team than exploring our inner selves. This internal journey can help you rediscover many positive things. As we get older, we often forget hobbies, relationships, and pastimes that once brought joy. Exploring the contours of our inner selves may lead to reclaiming and renewing these parts of ourselves.

Meaningful relationships

Effective leadership also requires meaningful relationships or, as some call them, nutritious relationships. The phrase “nutritious relationships” is intriguing. I’m not sure where the phrase comes from. Like many things, I heard it from someone who heard it from someone else.

When it comes to nutrition, you may think of healthy foods. Nutritious relationships are those that feed us, and we reciprocate. These relationships catalyze new ideas, possibilities, and risk-taking. Nutritious relationships challenge us to pursue the best version of ourselves even when we’re in the midst of figuring out what that is.

Leading effectively includes surrounding ourselves with these kinds of relationships. However, not all relationships are nutritious. No one has the luxury of being surrounded by only nutritious relationships. Some relationships, such as with co-workers, family members, and longtime friends, may be less nutritious but necessary. In this case, the effective leader must develop a strategy to limit exposure to potentially unhealthy interactions. Constant exposure to non-nutritious relationships can drain energy and joy.

Nutritious relationships are important especially in seasons of unhealthiness. If a support network includes healthy relationships, those individuals can hold you accountable to maintain health. It helps to know yourself well, have nutritious relationships, and be committed to service as an effective leader.

Taking time for self-care

James P. Shannon, co-founder of the Institute for Renewing Community Leadership (now called the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute), once said that his desire was to “be a weight-bearing member of society.” I believe Jim got it right! Effective leaders discover the power of “and.” Being a weight-bearer means that the effective leader understands that investing in oneself is not selfish. It is an investment in ourselves and others.

Too many leaders miss the “and” of leadership. They are either overly self-focused or other-focused. Either extreme can lead to unhealthy dynamics. A leader with laser focus on him- or herself can be seen as arrogant, selfish, and lacking emotional intelligence. A leader who is a martyr, on the other hand, is praised by others for his or her dedication to the team, project, or mission. However, there is also the danger of becoming burnt out, which can lead one to lack authenticity.

Service without self-care is unsustainable. This kind of service, while it makes us feel good to be praised by others, tends to create conditions where gifts, talents, and contributions of others are underdeveloped and untapped. Team members of “leaders as martyrs” know, whether consciously or subconsciously, that the martyr will take care of everything.

Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, says it best: “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to our true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Relating to those who are different

Effective leadership also requires learning to understand and communicate with those who are different from ourselves. We are living in an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and intergenerational community. Those who learn to navigate these new realities will provide the most effective leadership in their organizations.

As humans, we tend to have an easier time establishing relationships with those similar to us. Moreover, without significant exposure to different cultures, we assume the way we do things is the same way others who are different do things. We tend to attach values to different ways of doing things as better or worse instead of just different.

Taking a journey of self-discovery around important elements of one’s cultural story takes intention and attention. All human beings have culture! The development of culture happens both implicitly and explicitly over the course of our lives as we grow and develop.

There are many different definitions of culture, but I prefer this one: “Culture is a way of life of a group of people—the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

Our families play a central role in forming our own cultural norms, but friends, influencers, and the places where we live and work also contribute. Most of us are familiar with the culture at play on our work team or within our organization.

The contours of organizational culture may not be something you can find in an employee manual or handbook, but it is prominent in most organizations, including cities. It doesn’t take long for new employees to figure out the “way we do things around here.” Those who align their behavior with or are at least neutral to the dominant culture tend to enjoy work more than those who resist organizational culture.

There are rewards for those who “fit the culture” and disincentives for those who don’t. The meaning is invariably unclear when they say you’re a “fit” or you’re not. Often it is not related to a person’s ability to do the job.

Self-discovery is the first step

And this brings us back to self-discovery. A first step to healthy cross-cultural communication and, by extension, relationships, requires self-discovery around our own cultural identities. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to embrace cultural differences as a “different way” as opposed to a “better or worse way.” I believe that, as leaders, we have a great opportunity.

It’s easy to lament the rise in partisan rhetoric and tension, but these fractures and cracks are waiting to be filled with “and” leaders. Leaders who know the power of “and” recognize that we can celebrate our own culture and the cultures of others, and know that diversity is not a threat but a strength. In fact, many studies show that diverse work teams with managers committed to diversity and inclusion outperform homogenous ones.

But we don’t really need empirical research to convince us of this. Look at the complexity and diversity of the natural world. We have different trees, shrubs, animals, and insects. All these coexist in a complimentary ecosystem but are not all the same. Think about the diversity of cells in the human body and organ systems that work together to keep us running!

Effective leaders today and tomorrow will know themselves and be committed to nutritious relationships—including cross-cultural relationships—and service to the greater good. I am hopeful that a cadre of bold and courageous leaders are rising up to meet the challenges of today. Our families, organizations, institutions, and communities need this kind of courageous leadership. Ultimately, we are required to be great stewards of our season of life to leave the world better for those who will follow us.

Paul Robinson is a consultant and facilitator at the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.