The Role of Leadership in Diverse-Ability (not Disability!)

A thought piece by John Knights

As I have developed greater levels of awareness and an increased sense of consciousness, I have come to feel very uncomfortable with the term “Disability”, as in earlier times “Handicapped” and “Imbecile” became unacceptable. They are all fundamentally negative terms that create the sense of being less than “normal”, whatever that is.

I would like us to veer away from “disability” and replace it with “Diverse-Ability” to recognise everyone has a different set of abilities and that we should look at each person from a zero-base point of view to assess what they can do, not what they cannot do.


A memory cue!


(The make-up of letters on each side of the equation are the same)


Only the leaders of organisations can actually make this change happen. Laws and compliance are also necessary but without the commitment of leaders it just becomes a tick-box exercise. And the way they can do it is setting what we call the right “Climate”. The climate is set by the leaders of any organisation focusing on their personal behaviours and how they bring their values to full consciousness. A sea change like this will require leaders to change themselves – their behaviours and values – before they set about changing their organisation, and then the world (Knights et al, 2018).

As we have seen with Ethical Leadership (Knights, 2016) and Women in Leadership (Young 2016), the default thinking has always tended in the past to see these as either irrelevant or bad for business. However, recent research, analysis and practice have shown these approaches are overwhelmingly good for business.  So it shall be, in my view, with Diverse-Ability.

The next step leaders need to make is within their own organisations. They should communicate to HR that there needs to be a new approach to recruitment and selection that highlights the primary abilities and values that are needed for a particular role as well as and ahead of qualifications, experience and background. This needs a complete mindset recalibration that requires everyone in the organisation to be taken through a core development process that raises awareness, enables them to better manage their emotions and to bring their values to full consciousness. This process, by the way, can be used to remove bias, prejudice and discrimination across the board.

Next, leaders need to act collectively to bring pressure to government to move away from the current 20th century education system where we only consider cognitive rational processes (maths, reading, writing, etc) as valid and largely stay with the same teaching methodologies, even though it is well known that many people do not learn effectively in this way. Three specific suggestions:

  1. Introduce emotional intelligence as a core subject from nursery school right through secondary education. This will help children to develop empathy at an early age and avoid bias and prejudice developing in the first place (there is good evidence that many parents need this training too!)
  2. Many children can only learn effectively by doing, rather than learning the theory. Why not assess children at an early age as to their favoured learning style and provide teaching that is geared in this way, while also helping children to learn better in their non-favoured ways.
  3. Although flipped learning is often hotly debated by teachers, it is a more brain friendly way to learn by reversing the “lesson followed by homework” process so that homework is used for gaining the knowledge and the lesson is used for the application of that knowledge.

These changes would transform how we view Diverse-Ability.


John Knights is Chairman of LeaderShape Global and lead author of “Leading Beyond the Ego: How to Become a Transpersonal Leader” as well as other books, white papers and articles. He is also an Associate of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI)


Knights, J. (2016). How to Develop Ethical Leaders. White Paper. Routledge

Knights, J., Grant, D. & Young, G. (2018). Leading Beyond the Ego: How to Become a Transpersonal Leader. Routledge.

Young, G. (2016). Women, Naturally Better Leaders for the 21st Century. White Paper. Routledge.

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