I’m writing this post on Labor Day in the US. Which has me thinking about, well, labor of all things. Specifically how much has changed (or not) since Labor Day started back in the early 1880s – when the US was just emerging from the changes brought by industrialism and not that long after our Civil War.

Child labor laws were starting to take shape around the time the Labor Day movement, though nothing was on the federal books yet. The Fair Employment Act showed up in the early 1940s – and was followed decades later by the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Labor Day Parade, Buffalo, New York, circa 1900.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

So how is all this connected to leadership?  I’m thinking mostly of the changes in labor in terms of the workforce and what that means for leaders and leadership. The workforce is increasingly inclusive. Partly because of labor laws, like those mentioned above, partly because it is an economic necessity,and partly because of the rise in multinational organizations (both for profit and not for profit).

This increased diversity in the workforce is a change that provides potential to build a more inclusive and functional organizations and ideally society itself.  It also places a greater burden on us to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. The payoff, I believe, is well worth the disequilibrium (and in some cases discord).  Leadership is a factor that can help move us through the discomfort to see and seize the opportunity therein. What strikes me is the importance of good sense balanced with good policies and practices. There’s no good answer about how to get it right, and if I had “the” answer, chances are you wouldn’t full agree.

Our sense of “good sense” gets challenged in an increasingly inclusive workforce (where we come into contact with different perspectives, experiences and different ideas about “good sense”). Leadership, from my perspective, is about being aware of and anchored in one’s values, identity, expertise, etc. and, paradoxically,  being willing to reflect and change based on new experiences and information.

“Good” policies and practices are tricky too. While I think policies and practices should represent collective wisdom, I can think of times that something unpopular did a great deal to move an organization or a country forward (and vice versa – something popular that had negative consequences). And, of course, a lot depends on how policies and practices are enacted and enforced.

The “answer” is a verb more than a noun. Paying attention to one’s own ideals and values, those of others, and the greater context – and doing the best we can to be fair, just, and productive.

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