The leadership alchemical quest to create a dynamic state of belonging

Glancing at the clock, he confirmed it was still too early to get up and sit at his desk. 2am! He reviewed the situation, for the 100thtime, in his mind, turning it over from different perspectives he couldn’t see how he could have tackled it differently.

Robert was the best candidate, with or without disability. Having said that, Lucy did have a point, with no senior female leaders, the leadership team did lack gender diversity. But, on the other hand the team will benefit from Robert’s neurodiversity perspective. Musing, he wondered if he should create a new dedicated leadership role for women?? Hmm, no. He was definite about that. There lie dragons, he thought to himself … but there was a problem in bringing diversity candidates through the organisation, most seemed to be stuck either at junior management or below level.

Rolling over, he reflected on his recent reading, Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code … it had so many great examples of successful diverse organisations. There was no question about it in his mind … diversity in all its forms had to be at centre of the organisation: gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, cultural or linguistic background, religion, life experience, family background, socio-economic or educational background, intellectual or physical disability, and age. But how?? Coyle’s book contained tonnes of strategies and tactics, but he doubted he had the capacity or competence to implement them.

Anyway, he had a thornier issue to manage now. Looking at the clock, 2.30am he realised sleep was going to elude him. Might as well get up, he thought. Actually, since becoming CEO he doubted if he had experienced a full night’s sleep, another thing to work on, he thought. That, taking up a meditation practice, doing a full hour of reading and learning every day, getting in an hour of cardio and walking 10,000 steps …

Putting the coffee machine on, he sat down and contemplated the issues Lucy was likely to raise in the meeting she had scheduled with him at 9.30am to discuss the outcome of the selection process for the Chief Programs Officer role. Confident that the process was based in merit, he realised that he was going to have to dig deeper.

Sipping his coffee his eyes widened as he realised that actually there were signs that this issue of diversity and inclusion was bubbling away at every level and in every division of his organisation. Two very recent conversations with his EA and the lead Change Agent. His EA only yesterday mentioned how she was needing to stock extra boxes of tissues in the supply cupboard on the fourth floor — apparently the manager of customer service had a less than pleasant style in motivating and encouraging his staff, whilst the Change Agent’s recent verbal and written report had highlighted some particularly difficult groups of staff across the organisation who were routinely unravelling her work or outrightly ignoring her directions for changes to policies, systems or procedures. And now he thought about, there were some obvious signs that various managers and leaders were cutting corners, playing it safe and proactively reshaping his message for curiosity and creativity to drive relentless innovation matched by seamless and best practice execution to underpin high performance, growth and deep organisational resilience.

Yup, it all felt like too much, but stirring his coffee he realised that his decision today would determine the next 6–12 months of growth, performance and success. And … he thought with a wry smile, it started with him …


500 years ago, Indian leaders in what is now the Muglaga province, realised that they needed to find a physical way to bridge distances as monsoonal rains flooded the mangroves. Using the roots of fig trees, these futurists were able to create living bridges that continue to serve the community, many generations later.

By choosing to think differently and creatively, making meaning out of disparate resources, whilst sensing the future, these leaders flexed their belonging super powers to bolster, protect and nurture their communities — in the moment and for the generations to come.

At the moment, leaders are constantly pulled in every direction, needing to be the solution to every problem, effortlessly zooming in and out of the granular detail and the big picture, switching between oversight of strategy execution, relentless innovation and continuous risk management whilst creating and fostering a cohesive, support and inclusive culture. The proof of this capacity is measured through shareholder price, consumption and delivery of goods and services, citizen engagement and consumer satisfaction and effective minimisation of risk. However, whilst this captures the reality of the marketplace it does not explain the astounding performance of organisations like Apple, Zappos, S. A. S. or Seal Team Six or Google.

In a world where division and alienation defines our families, communities and workplaces, the challenge of creating connection and engagement: belonging has become the most profound leadership burden.

Resilient, sustainable and continuously evolving high performance demands heroic leadership characterised by the leadership capability to create, promote and foster belonging.


The link between resilience, innovation and high performance is increasingly being understood as the necessary by-products of organisational diversity. However, for most organisations meaningful diversity is proving to be as elusive as a desert oasis. As societal awareness and legislative requirements of diversity has matured, organisations have struggled to achieve and maintain targets and manage the concerns of employees over their perception of preferential treatment.

Fundamentally diversity requires the existence of an inclusive culture.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance”

Verna Myers, State of the Service 2017–2018

Currently the paradoxical hallmarks of the 21stcentury are:

  • Greater connection to and between people than ever before and the deepest sense of alienation and loneliness
  • Diverse communities being governed and serviced by hegemenous government and corporate institution projecting and imposing dominant discourse based on“false consciousness”
  • High performance, continuous innovation and agility is directly correlated to diversity and inclusion whilst government agencies and big brands continue to labour under rigid old thinking and strategy execution.

Building cultures that are diverse and inclusive is hard. It requires leaders who are willing to grapple with their own and everyone else’s uncertainty to create a language and culture that transforms toxicity into trust: to build a community where everyone belongs.

Conscious, curious and creative, this kind of leadership focuses on performing intense emotional labour to transform the natural toxins created through everyday interactions between people, structures and systems into trust AND engage and connect every member to the overriding purpose. But to do this, the leader needs to understand how pain, an unavoidable byproduct of organisational activity, can be transformed into the organisational superfuels, trust and belonging.

Ultimately the leader needs deep insight into why, who, how, what and when leadership hurts and accept their primary role in performing the critical emotional labour leadership.

However most leaders endeavor to do this work in their spare time, preferring instead to focus on the busy work. This kind of short sighted leadership results in toxic culture, deeply exclusive and discriminatory work practices, stagnancy in thinking and innovation and stupidity based decision-making based on the hegemonous dominant discourse.

This when leaders become overwhelmed, anxious and stressed as they realise the enormity of the task to weed out toxic work practices, false beliefs and unacceptable values and standards threatens.

By choosing to embrace their role of chief organisational emotional labourer, leaders can set themselves and their organisations up to thrive on the lifeblood of trust and belonging.


Currently Australian government workforces are unreflective of community diversity “result[ing] in organisations that are unaware of the diversity of community needs and values and lacking in innovation. They are unable to carry out effectively policies for the whole community and to respond to change in the community and in the economic and political environment or to improve administrative practices through innovation.” Peter Wilson, State of the Service 2017–2018


As the linchpins, it is critical that leaders are consistently thriving as they facilitate and create belonging and transform toxicity into trust. This means they must be highly skilled practitioners in the four intelligences:

o Emotional

o Social

o Cultural

o Technical / theoretical.

This multidimensional intelligence supports the individual in developing the competence to communicate and facilitate belonging through:

o Safety (psychological, emotional and physical)

o Connection (people and purpose)

As leaders create and hold the energy of belonging, they are supporting individuals to identify how they can relate to one another regardless of difference

When individuals begin to experience overwhelming dissonance around expectation, engagement or empowerment, and the connection to purpose is broken, so too is the connection to belonging.

Balancing on a knife edge, the alchemic mix of safety, connection, engagement, resilience, trust, purpose and belonging, has the potential to create an organisational gold that unleashes transformative performance, power and passion.


Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), State of the Service Report 2017–2018, Commonwealth of Australia, 2018 https://www.apsc.gov.au/state-service-report-2017-18-chapter-5-diversity-and-inclusion

Coyle, D, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Penguin Random House UK, 2018

Frost, P, Toxic Emotions at Work: How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2003

Iszatt-White, M., Leadership as Emotional Labour: Management and the ‘managed heart’, Emotional Labour Leadership, Routledge 2016

Knight, N, (2019) Leadership Hurts, https://naomiknight.co/knights-insights



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Naomi Knight

Naomi Knight

Constantly striving for mastery in the art of kintsugi, Naomi is an expert alchemist skilled in transforming life lessons and professional challenges into gold.