My family went to Walt Disney World in April. Then I joined my husband at a conference at a Disney resort later that month. Both times there was something eerie to me about the crowds we met. Thousands of people on one small patch of Florida at an attraction that presumably draws people from around the world, if not at least throughout North America.

What was eerie to me was that almost all the faces of the tourists were the same. Where were all the colorful faces? Where was the Asian population? Where was the ever-growing Hispanic community? Where were the African-Americans for that matter? And where were the tourists from the Carribean, Mexico, and parts beyond?

There were many International staff from all over the world, with the ability to speak countless languages. It was thrilling to read their name badges sporting the names of their home countries. Presumably, the intent of this hiring strategy was to host the global tourists, which must have been there somewhere.

Those of you who have visited Disney will be familiar with the “It’s a Small World” exhibit. You ride on a little boat through a cheerful display of mechanical children representing nations around the world in traditional costume and stereotypical form. The most Diversity represented on our trips to Disney was in this “North American white person’s perspective on multiculturalism”.

It struck me as another element of all that is surreal about this “magic” land.

Granted the expense of a trip to Disney precludes most families from attending. And of course, wealth in North America is disproportinately distributed to white families. But this fact alone could not explain the homogeneity of the crowds.

What was perhaps even more disconcerting to me was that I had an assumption that the crowd would look similar to a crowd at a Toronto park. I was confronted with recognition that the whole Disney experience that I had grown up believing was Universal…is not necessarily so. My perspective was shaped by the unspoken belief that it is a rite of passage that all middle class North American families must at some point make this pilgrimage with their children…replicating the trip that they took with their own parents decades before.

My husband, Dave, was born in Trinidad and lived there until grade 4. He didn’t buy into the “must do” rationale for booking this trip. He didn’t understand the phenomenon that is Disney beyond appreciating that Disney had built an incredible business empire. He didn’t grown up knowing these characters. He didn’t grow up with “the magic”…or I should say with “this magic”. There is, of course, plenty of magic that he was exposed to growing up that simply wasn’t a part of my culture and personal history.

He appeased me. We went.

The Disney experience was another in a series of moments of recognition…that our truth is based on what we know. That certainly we cannot always know what we do not know. That I can never take forgranted that my own experience is the human experience. That, gloriously, there is more to learn everyday about how my husband and I are unique.

I am “white”, second-generation Canadian, with roots in Britain. Dave has grown up identifying as “West Indian” and “brown”. His grandparents are Indian from East India. Our children have a blend of our genes. Their skin is slightly olive-white in the winter and a beautiful light golden brown when they’ve been kissed by the summer’s sun.

My daughter sees herself as “brown”. Among the Disney princesses, she’s always been drawn to Jasmine over the blonde and milky-skinned Belle and Cinderella. While at Disney, no matter what gift shop we went into, it was difficult for her to spend her precious allowance on any Jasmine item– unless she was bundled in a pack with the other blonde princesses. Microinequities come in many shapes and sizes!

It’s a small world even in the gift shop.

I recently heard a webinar interview with Marcus Buckingham, author of the book, The One Thing You Need to Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success.

The book is a good read. If you are fans of Buckingham’s earlier books based on research by the Gallup organization (First Break All the Rules and Now, Discover your Strengths), you’ll find elaboration on themes he has previously addressed.

But this Blog post is NOT intended to be a book review. I wanted to write about a connection I made while listening to the interview… because it jumped out at me.

Buckingham was focusing on the distinction between great managing and great leadership. His position is that “the chief responsibility of a manager is to turn a person’s unique talent into performance”. He holds that great managers recognize that each person has unique talents and motivations and they seek to understand and leverage these unique qualities. Great managers treat each person DIFFERENTLY based on understanding each individual’s personality and motivations.

It struck me between the eyes that this is what has frustrated me about typical discussions on the topic of “managing diversity” for some time.

In Workshops on Diversity, I have often found myself sighing with despair when a participant (particularly a manager) says, “It doesn’t matter whether people are white, brown, green or purple… I treat them all the same”. Such participants will then look around the room with a boastful pride as if to say “look at how enlightened I am!”

For me, to look past “difference” and see this as a noble behaviour leaves me shaking my head. This “we’re all the same” thinking seems far too simplistic. Frankly, it feels like we are missing the whole point. For some people, their “green or purpleness” may well be relevant. To look past cultural context, history, personal story, is to look past what is core for that individual. Where’s the richness?

VALUING diversity, for me, means identifying what is truly unique and respecting those differences as the true gift that they can provide. In corporations, this “gift” has little to do with race, sexual orientation or gender, etc. PER SE. It has everything to do with the value of differences in perspectives, thinking, approaches, ideas, and behaviours. At the same time, I firmly believe that this diversity of perspective is profoundly shaped by our personal experience and cultural upbringing… experiences that are often impacted by what may appear to be little more than superficial, demographic differences of race, gender, etc.

And so, in our efforts to be politically correct and look past the “superficial” differences, we may miss the opportunity to be genuinely curious and to draw on that which is truly unique about each of us.

(I recognize that this is a bit of a rant. It really strikes a chord for me.)

At a certain level, of course, differences DO in fact become immaterial. Marcus Buckingham’s distinction between what makes for Great Management versus Great Leadership is helpful for me. He says that great leaders find what is shared among all members of a group and capitalize on it. In an organization, this means establishing a Vision that appeals to all employees, regardless of race, gender, academic background, level in the organization, right-brain or left-brain dominance and the list goes on. Great leaders tap into what is universal.

This is what great leaders do…connect to the person inside all of us where differences are honoured and yet they become small again or pale in comparison with our shared humanity.

And so the circle goes….

It feels to me that there is something important in these principles, whether we are looking at the great work that some of us are doing with our organizational cultures or whether we are looking at the one-to-one relationships that we are trying to enhance in our everyday lives.

Love to hear your thoughts!