In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Smart Agriculture
June 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 2
People everywhere rely on agriculture in one form or another – for food, animal feed, fiber, and other necessities. The summer 2022 articles describe precision indoor farming and alternative protein food systems, advances in food processing, genome editing, digitalization, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the role of a circular economy, and the important role of policy.

Diversity and Inclusion: Essential Drivers of Leadership

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Author: Laura Castillo-Page and John L. Anderson

President's Perspective

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Mark Twain

What has been fundamental to many leadership theories over time is the tenet that good leadership is “doing the right thing.” There are, however, two challenges with this tenet: determining what the “right thing” is, and executing action to do it. The second is often easier than the first.

In all but trivial situations, deciding on the right thing to do may involve compromise among ideas and ideals, or, in engineering terms, trade-offs based on constraints. Because ideas and ideals are informed not only by an institution’s mission and by social and cultural factors but also by personal perspectives, diversity and inclusion are absolutely critical to the decision process—to reduce the likelihood of troubling outcomes from decisions based on “what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” A diverse and inclusive leadership team is essential.

The accompanying photograph shows 15 of the original 25 members elected to the National Academy of Engineering when it was founded in 1964. All these men had great achievements and were giants in their fields. But, as the photo shows, it was a very homogeneous group.

President's Perspective figure 1.gif
Founding members attending the first annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, April 27–29, 1965. From left to right, standing: Ernst Weber, Michael L. Haider, Charles A. Thomas, William L. Everitt, Julius A. Stratton, Frederick E. Terman, Thomas K. Sherwood, Clark B. Millikan, James N. Landis, Hendrick W. Bode, and Nathan M. Newmark. Seated: Thomas C. Kavanagh, Augustus B. Kinzel, Eric A. Walker, and first NAE secretary Harold K. Work.

That homogeneity characterized engineering education and practice for centuries, with consequences largely unrecognized by those in the predominant group. But as Bill Wulf, a former president of the NAE, observed more than 20 years ago, “as in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it…. [Without] diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost….[1]

In addition to opportunity costs there can be unintended consequences of projects and products engineered without representative input. For example, major highways that separate communities, social media systems that create divisiveness rather than harmony, and responses to a pandemic that cause many to lose their livelihood all could have been avoided had a variety of life experiences informed the decision makers.

There is evidence that diversity helps particularly in solving complex problems. The work of Scott E. Page (University of Michigan) shows that having diverse teams can lead to better innovation, creativity, complex problem solving, and forecasts based on diverse life experiences and insights—producing better organizational outcomes, which is exactly what leaders strive for.[2] As he puts it, “What you want to do is think, ‘Who has tools or understanding that we don’t have?’… If you hire people from the same ethnic group, who went to the same schools, worked at the same places—you’re just kind of shooting for a B-plus…. Nothing great’s going to happen.”[3] Similarly, diversity in the boardroom,

with input from people of different backgrounds, competencies, viewpoints, and perspectives, supports more effective and innovative decision making.

Diversity alone is not sufficient in helping leaders do the right thing. A purposefully inclusive environment is also a must in order to leverage that diversity and reap the benefits. The leader must listen to the varied input and challenge her own beliefs. An inclusive environment should allow individuals to bring their authentic selves and life experiences to work, and should provide the psychological safety to be creative and take risks. When employees feel included and a sense of belonging, they are more engaged and productive, and trust between employees and leadership is enhanced.

Individuals naturally act and make decisions according to their own experiences and knowledge. To avoid “getting into trouble,” we need to admit that we don’t know the experiences of others and deliberately seek their input to make a well-informed decision.

As leaders in technical fields, we are at the helm of tackling our nation’s biggest and most vexing problems related to STEM. How effectively we do so is increasingly a function of the intentional, inclusive engagement of diverse teams and governing boards, as well as an inclusive culture, to strengthen our decision-making capabilities and improve our organizational outcomes. At the NAE, we are committed to this philosophy through our strategic plan and actions, membership initiatives and leadership, a presidential advisory committee on racial justice and equity, and the National Academies’ Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.


[1]  Wulf WA. 1998. Diversity in engineering. The Bridge 28(4):8–13.

[2]  Page SE. 2017. The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton University Press.

[3]  Interview, IEEE Spectrum, Sep 2017, pp. 22–23.

About the Author:Laura Castillo-Page is the National Academies’ chief diversity and inclusion officer. John Anderson is president of the National Academy of Engineering.