Leading with Pride – the Gay Leadership Dude

Dr Steven Yacovelli is the author of Pride Leadership: Strategies for the LGBTQ+ Leader to be the King or Queen of Their Jungle. Our conversation covered his take on diversity and inclusion and we took a close look at the six key areas he covers about leadership in his book.
Dr Steve's 6 inclusive leadership concepts

Dr Steven Yacovelli is the author of Pride Leadership: Strategies for the LGBTQ+ Leader to be the King or Queen of Their Jungle. Our conversation covered his take on diversity and inclusion and we took a close look at the six key areas he covers about leadership in his book.

To begin my conversation with my guest this week, I asked him, ‘Who are you and what do you do?’

‘I’m Dr Steven “Steve” Yacovelli, pronouns he, him, and his. I am the owner and principal of TopDog Learning Group. I’m also known as the Gay Leadership Dude. By using this self-proclaimed title, you automatically know three things about me: that I’m gay, that I self-identify as a dude, and third, I really like to talk about leadership, especially inclusive leadership within the workplace.

I’ve been doing this pretty much my whole career in one way or another. So leadership, change management, diversity inclusion consulting. I was a Disney folk for a while. I was an IBMer for a bit. I was a professor here in the States for like a hot minute after I got my doctorate. I’ve been doing my own practice for over 14 years now. I’m based in Orlando, Florida, but I lived in Lancaster for a while when I was working at the university.’

In Steve’s book, he writes about six key areas around inclusive leadership which are authenticity, courage, empathy, communication, relationships and culture. We decided our conversation would take a bit of a deep dive into each of these six areas because they make a useful checklist for inclusive leaders to work through. Before doing that, Steve told me how he came to identify the six areas.

‘I was at a conference several years ago. I’m sorting business cards as people do at conferences, and this woman’s doing the same thing sitting next to me. We struck up a conversation.

She’s like, “What do you do?”

I replied, “You know, consulting, blah blah blah. How about you?”

She’s like, “I’m a publisher.”

I said, “You know, there’s a book in my head that needs to come out!”

And she said, “Well, let’s get that book out.”

We started going down the path. I knew I wanted to make it about leadership, given that’s where I focus a lot of my energy. I started putting things together, thinking about where I’ve seen leaders who are doing well and knocking it out of the park. What commodities they have. Then ones that aren’t doing so well. What they’re missing.

Back in the day in the show, Sex and the City the character Carrie who was a writer would sit at her laptop, and she’d write, “I couldn’t help but wonder.”

It’s the gay man in me, I guess, but I heard that voice, and I said, “I couldn’t help wonder, is there something about the queer experience that allows you to exercise leadership a little bit differently?” I’ve had many people interview me and say “Are you saying straight people can’t be good leaders?” I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s true.” No, I’m kidding, that’s not true. But I do say that there is an opportunity for LGBTQ+ folks to exercise their leadership muscles differently. That’s how Pride Leadership came about. I do know, from many people who’ve given me feedback, my editors, that it’s totally open for our straight allies as well. But getting into the competencies, these are the six, regardless of who you are, that I’ve seen leaders either rock and roll and knock it out of the park, as we say here in the States.

Dr Steve's 6 traits of inclusive leadership: authenticity, courage, empathy, communication, relationships, culture.

There’s no hidden agenda with these six areas of competency. What’s nice about them is they all just tie so gorgeously together. They’re not like these nice little linear stripes. There are six colours, because that’s the colours on the Pride flag, depending on which Pride flag you look at. The six areas are intertwined. I can’t be authentic if I’m not courageous. They all meld together in a great way.

Authenticity

I’m not the first person to have this conversation. A lot of people talk about how authentic leaders are better. Why is that? Well, as humans we can tell when someone’s not being authentic, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. We get that feeling when someone’s just not being their true authentic selves.

Put that through the rainbow lens. If I’m an out gay man at work, or I’m a trans person being their authentic selves within the workplace, that’s power. That’s flexing that leadership muscle. And so, I talk in Pride Leadership about how you can then channel that to be an authentic leader in general. That’s the way people will start to gravitate toward you. The massive secret behind any effective leadership regardless is fostering trust.

If I’m authentic, people trust me. If I’m leading through leadership courage, meaning I’m having those hard conversations and I’m going to provide you with that feedback, even if it’s not something you feel comfortable hearing, I’m still going to provide you with that. You know at the end of the day, we’re okay, because I’m just helping you be better. Having that courage leads to fostering trust.’

I was hearing that authenticity is about being congruent. When Steve was talking, I was thinking about what Brené Brown talks about, in terms of leaning into your vulnerabilities as well. I asked him if he thinks that vulnerability comes into being an authentic leader as well?

‘I totally agree with the goddess that is Brené Brown because it’s true. As a smart and effective leader, I want to own up to what I can do, what I’m rocking and rolling at, as well as the stuff that I’m not good at because smart leaders surround themselves with people who fill in the gaps of my competence level. Smart leaders complement their teams with different facets of diversity.

I’m an extrovert, in case you could not figure that out. I like to talk. I like to be around people. If I’m smart, I’d build my team with at least a couple of folks who have a more introverted perspective. They’ll bring something to the table that I don’t. That’s being authentic – knowing that about myself and bringing that to the overall workplace and beyond.’

The second area is courage. When we look at the six signature traits of an inclusive leader that Deloitte put together, they talk about having courageous conversations, being a bold leader, calling things out when you see things happening… that kind of thing. I asked Steve, ‘What’s your perspective on courage?’

‘I put it through the framework of being a consciously inclusive leader, which is the phrasing I like to use. And a consciously inclusive leader knows that when things aren’t being as inclusive as they should and could be, they make those moments known.’

Courage

Steve continued on the theme of courage. ‘Here’s a true story. I was in a conference room in Atlanta with a client, and we were closing out this change management project. Myself and one of my TopDoggers, which is what I call my consultants, and then about 40 other folks from the project team. We were like “Rah-rah, we’re done, woohoo, we did the project.” At the very head of the table is the senior executive. This is the person who signed the cheques to my company. They were the executive sponsor and male. That’s important to the story because just as we’re about to start the meeting and the voices are slowly dying down, you hear that senior executive say, “Well, you know how all women drive.”

Everyone stops and looks at the head of the table, but no one says a word. At that exact moment, we were all engaged in what’s called silent collusion. By not saying something or addressing it, we’re all silently supporting that stupid comment.

A courageous leader won’t let that happen. Let’s pretend Bob is the executive. The courageous leader will say something like, “Bob,” what did you mean by that statement?”

It’s doing it tactfully, noticing one’s own emotions. Asking the questions. The message feels very different. A courageous leader won’t let those types of things go. They’ll address those issues in the moment because everybody is watching you as a leader. Regardless if you have a team, you’re on a project, you are an independent contributor – it doesn’t matter. You are always on stage as a leader, and people are collecting data about the type of leader that you are. Whether you’re going to defend them or not. That’s where courageous leadership comes into play and builds trust as well.’

Something I come across quite a lot is when people struggle with being able to speak up or call out things when they notice it. I was curious what Steve’s advice would be?

‘That’s a fantastic question. I often have people say, “Well, that’s like my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. I can’t say something to her!” And you know, it’s… I hear you, I’ve been in many corporate environments. I get it. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you and your personal value system to decide how you want to lead and live through that.

Some people say, “Can I say something to them offline?” Yes, you can. However, you’ve missed that leadership opportunity to let others know that, “You know what, I don’t agree with that.”

It could be just something as simple as you saying a non-word. I have this tool in Pride Leadership, and on our website as free training: the six strategies to beat silent collusion. One of those is called MOPSAM. It’s very silly and fun. One of those is you say a non-word, like “Whoa.” Just something like that alone sends a verbal message that “I’m so not on board with that stupid statement you said.” Now, it doesn’t go so far to address what this person said, but at the very minimum, I’m showing that “Uh-uh, that’s not cool.”

Another fabulous strategy I’ve shared with leaders throughout the years, especially in very large companies, is to say, “Look at your corporate values.” These are how you’re supposed to work together. I would venture that the values have something about open and honest communication, providing feedback, creating an inclusive workplace, things like that will be in your values. I guarantee it, quite frankly.

Use that as your shield. Say “Wow, you know, hey, Bob, aren’t we supposed to create an inclusive workplace? I don’t perceive that that comment is helping to do that. Maybe that’s my perspective, but I just wanted to share that with you.”

Empathy

Steve has written a chapter in his book called Yielding the Magic Fairy Wand or Sword of Empathy which also references elephants which is intriguing! I asked him, ‘What is the magic wand or sword, and where do elephants come into this?’

‘When you look at traditional workplaces, it’s getting a little less this way, but back in the day, to age myself, the concept of emotions and understanding emotions and bringing emotions to the workplace was taboo. This is not just a US thing. It’s in a lot of western societies. “Emotions stay at the door, you come and bring your mind; that’s what we need here in business.”

That’s where I say “Embrace the emotion”. The whole elephant thing is based on a book called Switch by two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a fantastic book, which talks about how humans embrace change. They talk about this concept that they borrowed from, I believe, an NYU professor, where it’s the concept of the elephant and the rider. We as humans are both the elephant and the rider. You think of these two parts of one entity, where the rider part is the logical side of us humans, you know, so, kind of in control, riding on top of the elephant. The elephant is the emotional side of us. They use this analogy because the sizes of these two beings are very different. So, if I’m the rider, and I’m taking my elephant down the path, and I want the elephant to go right, which way do you think that elephant goes?

Well, the elephant only goes right if they want to. That’s how our emotions are. Think about every single person reading right now. At some point, you’ve been emotionally hijacked when in some way, your emotions got the better of you. It’s how we operate as humans, and it’s beautiful.

Smart leaders understand this and start to leverage that emotional connectivity, not just to foster relationships, but to understand the people they’re leading.’

Communication

In the fourth area of communication, one of the things that grabbed my attention in this chapter, is the question, “Why are LGBTQ+ folks good at communicating?” I identify as gay myself, so I was thinking, ‘Yeah, why is that?’

‘Thank you for sharing that, Toby. You know, I hypothesise in Pride Leadership that, as a queer person, for the most part, we’re a hidden minority. So you choose to disclose, out yourself, to come out but we do that very strategically. Think through the Maslow hierarchy of needs. We start with that safety thing. I’m not coming out of the closet to say, “Hello, friends!” when I’m in a situation that I can perceive as very unsafe to my wellbeing.

When you start figuring your authentic self out as a queer person, you start looking for those nonverbal cues and those different signals that are out there that help us understand things a little bit better in context. That’s why I say, as a queer person, we’ve had lots of practice of situations, where whether you know it or not, you’re looking for allies. You’re looking for safety. You’re looking for that harbour where, if things get ugly, I got someone who hopefully has got my back.

We’re getting smarter, as workplaces, to throw those statements overtly out there. You know, people often ask me, “Why do I put my pronouns and stuff?” You know why, because you’re sending a gorgeous signal to members of the queer community that you’re an ally, you’re a safe space. Just through the nature of our survival, we’ve had to develop this different way of not just communicating, but also having some of those hard communication strategies.

Back to courage, when I had to come out to my parents and share that authenticity of who I finally figured out who I am. When I had to do that in a workplace it wasn’t that I came in with my rainbows a-flaming. I would strategically share, “Hey, just so you know, I have a boyfriend,” or now, “I have a husband”. We start to think through and navigate a little bit differently, which exercises those communication muscles, just in a different way than our straight brothers and sisters.

So for a takeaway that we can all take back to our organisations, try this. We all have our preferred ways of communicating. Some people like to pick up the telephone. Some people are like, “Why are you voice-calling me? This is ridiculous. Just send me a darn text.” Others shoot off 20 million emails a day. We all have our preferred ways.

I challenge everybody to think, what’s your recipient’s preferred method of communication? I think about my niece, and if I call her, she freaks out because she’s a millennial. She calls me Peeve so if I call her she’s like, “Uncle Peeve, what the hell are you calling me for?” I’m like, “I just wanted to say hi.” So now, I know, send a text. “Hey, how are you doing? You got five minutes? I’d just love to chat.” It’s thinking through the recipient of the message and how that message is being sent versus your own bias for how you like to do things.’

Relationships

It’s interesting how, as Steve said, the different areas link together. For me, the communication takeaway touches on the area of empathy too by considering the message recipient’s preferred method of communication. The penultimate area of the six is relationships. I asked Steve, ‘What would you say is one of the most important things we need to know about relationships?’

‘When I say relationships, it’s building and fostering relationships including remotely too. I think one of the biggest strategies to think about is how can you do that, and I’ll put it through the lens of contemporary times because although the book’s only a couple of years old it landed just before a pandemic. My doctorate is in instructional technology and distance education and I was Zooming.

I remember this nugget of wisdom that one of my first professors shared in my doctoral program. He said, “When we’re talking about distance learning it’s distant communication. I’m going to be blunt: distance learning will absolutely never, ever replace the feeling that us humans have by physically being together.” Of course, he’s spot on and I will be the first, as someone who’s a big proponent of distance education, to say that.

However, it’s not saying that distance can’t foster relationships. I think a lot of us have seen that, whether we wanted to or not, via this current experience in our world. Toby and I have had several chats via Zoom and we would have never had the pleasure of meeting had it not been for this technology – fantastic.

It could be that I have a team who I haven’t seen in two years, and I worry “Oh, I don’t feel like I’m fostering relationships.” Yes, you can. You have to think a little bit differently. Take the multi-module leadership programming for several Fortune 500s that we used to do onsite. Now we do it via distance so we started baking in some of that social learning, you know, “Hey, we’re gonna log in 20 minutes before.” We encourage you to do the same thing, just like you’d be hanging out at the coffee spot in the back of the conference room.

Give those opportunities for people to mimic, as close as you can, that physical environment space. It’ll never be the same, but I think everybody can think about how you are fostering those relationships? You might have to be a bit more purposive than you would just happen to walk into the break room together, but you can still do it. Think about ways to nurture those relationships using the technology that you have.’

As an aside from Steve’s interesting point about fostering connection virtually, I’ve started to see some new technologies come out that are trying to mimic the analogue world. For instance, I came across something the other day called Kumospace which is an online meeting platform, but essentially, you create zones to move between. You could have a lounge zone, where you can just hang out and chill, you can have a bar zone, you can have a boardroom. I think it’s quite a funky way of being able to give people a different virtual experience so I’m interested to see what else comes out.

Culture

The final area in Steve’s book is culture. This overlaps with my book Inclusive Growth because I’ve got a chapter on culture as well. I’m intrigued by what Steve writes about how can LGBTQ+ leaders promote a culture club of change and I asked him how they can do that.

‘When I talk about culture, it’s shaping culture. I think all of us “others” have an opportunity to create an inclusive space so that we all feel a sense of belonging and welcome and safety. So, in Pride Leadership, I talk about, you know, what are you doing as an LGBTQ+ leader to think through that? How do you approach your leadership and ask them about how inclusive they are being? I also acknowledge, in the book, that for some of us queer folks, all of us, others who are trying to create an inclusive workspace, sometimes find it exhausting.

We’re always throwing the mantle of being the teacher for the majority that’s out there that doesn’t “understand” our perspective. While I encourage everybody to take on that mantle, I also do that with a big sloppy legal asterisked rider which is: if you have the bandwidth and the energy and the passion. Way too often, in June of 2020, when all my Black and Brown brothers and sisters were all now suddenly forced to explain Black Lives Matter. That’s not their job.

I think shaping culture is all of our opportunity, but I do give the reader an out to say, “Look, you decide. Here are some criteria to think through.” At the end of the day, I would love for all of us to be those change agents that we can be, especially if you’re in a geographical space or a work environment that isn’t as consciously inclusive as we’d like. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide if you’d like to take on that fight or not.

There are some strategies for shaping culture to do that. The first one is to really look at those workplace vision/mission/values, and then see, are they being lived? Because if they’re out there, that’s what you can hold the organisation accountable for. And if they’re like, “Oh, you’re right, cool” then you have headway. If they’re like, “Oh, Steve, those are just really cool marketing things that we put on an onboarding” then you’ve just got some data. You can then make some decisions about whether you want to stay there and fight, or pick up your toys and find value elsewhere?’

Inclusive Growth

I was talking to Steve for the Inclusive Growth Show so as always I asked my guest what it means for him.

‘Inclusive growth is two-fold. Firstly I’ll put it through the leadership lens because that’s my jam as Gay Leadership Dude. As a leader, it’s thinking about having that broader perspective beyond yourself. It’s thinking about that sense of belonging and including others within the space. Then it’s about myself and being inclusive, and trying to understand all of the other perspectives. Although I bring many layers of diversity to the table there are other things I don’t understand.

I should try to strive to at least have some semblance of an understanding, and level of empathy for other experiences. The growth part also means shaping culture. Thinking about how I can help grow my respective sphere of influence whether it’s in the workplace, my social group, or whatever, to be more inclusive for all of us in the world.’

I enjoyed the rich conversation I had with Dr Steven Yacovelli. To recap, we covered authenticity, courage, empathy, communications, relationships, and culture. I’d encourage checking out his book Pride Leadership: Strategies for the LGBTQ+ Leader to be the King or Queen of Their Jungle available on Amazon and other good bookstores.

To reach out to Steve if you want some further help and support from him visit his website topdoglearning.biz where you’ll find information about all his books (there are three now). You can meet his team, or pack, as they like to call it at TopDog and sign up for the newsletter. That’s the best way to stay updated about their free webinars and other cool things like their learning tapas – bite-sized self-paced learning nuggets.


After my podcast interview with Steve was released and this article published, one of my LinkedIn connections, Idrees Mohammed, created this great infographic to summarise our conversation.

Infographic explaining authenticity, courage, empathy, communication, relationships and culture as discussed in my interview with Steve

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