What ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Taught Me about Diversity

Diversity in the Workplace Diversification

The Lord of the Rings is a massive fantasy work of 481,000 words, with dozens of characters, themes, and messages intertwined. The novel is split into 3 volumes, each with 2 parts (6 total). I have always loved this book, and its multitude of themes and characters can be applied to the business world.

I recently re-read the first two sections of the novel, encapsulated within the volume The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR). This book struck me as surprisingly business-oriented, as businesses are really just fellowships of skilled adventurers in this fantasy realm known as private enterprise.

The one resounding theme that filled this volume was the role of diverse teams and how it related to the Fellowship’s success. By developing a diverse team that featured several ethnicities, cultures, and personalities, the Fellowship overcame challenges that would have been impossible otherwise.

Ethnic Diversity in the Workplace

A key business lesson which can be gleaned from FOTR is the importance of diversity within the workplace, specifically within work teams working to accomplish a unified set of goals.

The Importance of Ethnic Diversity

The Fellowship of the Ring is a work team made up of 9 of the free peoples of Middle Earth, to counter the 9 Nazgul, servants of the dark lord Sauron. The story of FOTR seems to be focused on competition between these 2 work teams to accomplish diametrically opposed objectives.  Despite the Nazgul’s high level of competence in some key areas such as fighting, endurance, and stealth, the Fellowship enjoys a major competitive advantage over their rivals: ethnic diversity within their work team.

While the Nazgul all share the same ethnic backgrounds (kings of men who became immortal, indentured servants of Sauron over time through the corruption of 9 rings of power), the Fellowship’s working environment is ethnically diverse. The team includes Hobbits, a Numenorian man, a Man of Gondor, an Elf, a Dwarf, and a Maiar.

Having a diverse workplace has shown to be key, according to the HR Council. A HR Council employer survey also found that 73% of respondents identified “enhanced innovation and creativity” as a key benefit of diversity in a workforce.

Forbes Magazine, in their Global Diversity and Inclusion: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce report, found that diversity is one of the key drivers of business innovation. Among other key insights, the magazine found that, “[a]mong companies with more than $10 billion in annual revenues, 56% strongly agreed that diversity helps drive innovation.”

“Because of [Intel’s] diverse workforce, we’ve experienced a boost in productivity. When you can move people to contribute to their fullest, it has a tremendous impact.”
– Rosalind Hudnell, VP Worldwide Corporate Affairs, Intel

A diverse workplace ensures that your team has access to a wide array of skills, ideas, strengths, and networks.

What Happens When There is a Lack of Ethnic Diversity

A lack of diversity is perfectly illustrated by the Nazgul, a work team of 9 mortal men who had all undergone the same experiences of becoming a wraith due to their own greed for power. This team is not diverse either ethnically or culturally. Adding Frodo as a tiny-statured ring wraith by stabbing him with the Morgul blade at Weathertop hill, in hindsight, would have been the best thing that could have happened to the Nazgul, as they would at least have access to some new ideas, experiences, and strengths.

The Nazguls’ biggest organizational weakness, then, was that they all have the same weaknesses, and nobody to fill these weaknesses with other strengths. For instance, wraiths have a great aversion to light, particularly fire. The lack of ethnic diversity in their work team stopped them from ending The Lord of the Rings story early-on.

If the Nazgul had decided to add a few living orcs, dwarves or hobbits to their work team, the sight of a single man (Aragorn) waving a torch around would not have been a major threat to achievement of organizational objectives. The 4 Hobbits of the Fellowship would have been captured without much difficulty at Weathertop Hill.

What Happens When There is Ethnic Diversity

The Fellowship, on the other hand, is a model of ethnic diversity. Every ethnicity of the free peoples of Middle Earth are represented in the Fellowship (this was a conscious decision by management, including Elrond and Gandalf), each with their own corresponding strengths, including:

4 Hobbits

  • Difficult to detect
  • Strong personalities (contributes to workplace culture)
  • Resilient through extreme hardship
  • Extraordinary ability to resist the thrall of the One ring of power
  • Incredibly loyal towards team members

2 Men

  • Physical strength
  • Mental cunning and ingenuity

1 Dwarf

  • Comic relief (contributes to a positive workplace culture)
  • Resilience, strength, and hardiness
  • Natural sprinters (very dangerous over short distances)
  • Loyal (perhaps to a fault)

1 Elf

  • Can see for miles
  • Can hear for miles
  • Can walk on powder-snow
  • Immortal
  • Can almost single-handedly defeat virtually any enemy
  • Great hair

1 Maiar/Istari Wizard

  • Natural leadership
  • Wisdom and experience
  • Magic fireballs

The ethnic diversity of the Fellowship’s workforce provided the team with access to all of these diverse strengths, just as diversity in a real-world work environment does.

Cultural Diversity in the Workplace

Now, let’s examine a deeper area of discussion: cultural diversity.

Culture is defined as “The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.” As opposed to an ethnicity, culture can include various groups which a person chooses to join, but also often includes groups which are intertwined with a person’s family history and heritage.

Toronto-based management recruiting firm Barrett Rose & Lee see cultural diversity as a competitive advantage for employers:

“Diversity in the workplace is important to our future business success because the world as we’ve known it has changed and will continue to do so. Global demographic patterns and trends as well as social and cultural shifts are putting increased pressure on our business practices here in North America.”

Dr. Gillian Martin, in The Effects of Cultural Diversity in the Workplace published in the Journal of Diversity Management, found that a positive impact of cultural diversity in the workplace include “a strong knowledge base created by a variety of cultural experiences, an in-house resource of cultural trainers and informers, and a greater tendency to expand the business in foreign cultures.”

Cultural Diversity in The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship’s working environment is culturally very diverse:

  • Among the 4 Hobbits, for example, there is at least one sub-culture represented (Mariadoc Brandybuck from Buckland, east of The Shire).
  • The men in the Fellowship come from different cultures entirely (Aragorn, a Numenorian man from Eriador in the north, and Boromir from Gondor in the south).
  • Gimli the Dwarf is from the Kingdom of Erebor, with strong connections to the Dwarves of both the Iron Hills and Blue Mountains.
  • Legolas is an Eldar-Elf from the largely Silvan-Elf land of Greenwood/Mirkwood.
  • Gandalf, complicatedly, is an immortal Maiar spirit from Valinor across the seas, taking the physical form of a man.

How the Fellowship Benefitted from Diversity

Every employee in a workplace brings with them communication skills and social networks which are unique to their cultural background, and valuable to the team. The Fellowship of the Ring’s cultural diversity resulted in a wide range of benefits which helped the Fellowship achieve its objectives:

  • The Hobbits leverage their networks within The Shire (including Farmer Maggot, Fredegar Bolger, etc.) to move across the wilderness undetected and escape the Nazgul.
  • Aragorn’s Numenorian/Dunedain Ranger cultural background provided him with significant influence over men such as Theoden, King of Rohan, while his experience living amongst Elves opened up additional opportunities and alliance throughout the quest.
  • Boromir’s status as a member of Gondor’s ruling family provided members of the Fellowship with protection during the battle of Minas Tirith, and gave them credibility with Denethor, Steward of Gondor.
  • Gimli the Dwarf brings knowledge of Dwarvish history, specifically the passage under the Misty Mountains through the Mines of Moria. While Gandalf may not have valued this contribution (spoilers), Gimli’s cultural networks allowed the team to pass east while avoiding their enemies in Isengard.
  • Legolas the Elf is able to quickly connect with other Elves which the Fellowship meet throughout its quest (i.e. the elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien), easing the group’s journey towards their eventual goal through the support of these elvish communities in the forms of material resources.
  • Gandalf’s status as a Maiar gave the Fellowship instant credibility, and the ability to connect with and influence many groups whom they encountered.

Cultural diversity is important not just because of the advantages of cultural networks and connections, but because of how cultural diversity leads to the development of diverse skillsets.

Employees belonging to different cultures usually have different ways of thinking and can thus analyze a matter at hand from a variety of perspectives. This is hard to achieve when employees belonging to the same culture are asked to analyze the same matter.”
Dr. Gillian Martin

Diversity of Personality in the Workplace

Now, let’s examine a more ubiquitous concept which stretches across all ethnicities and cultures: diversity of personality.

Personality is defined as “The set of emotional qualities, ways of behaving, etc., that makes a person different from other people.”

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is a firm believer that diverse personalities in work teams deliver superior project results. In their study of the importance of diverse personalities in work teams, the ASME found that

“Performance improves when a team pays attention to its members’ individual personalities… Most compelling was the tripling of design prizes awarded by the Lincoln Foundation to one course’s teams over a ten-year period when no factors changed except for personality composition.”

ASME’s research indicates massive advantages to creating work teams with diverse personalities. This effect occurs because team members handling preferred activities are likely to perform better.

“The belief in one’s own capabilities is important for every team member because beliefs influence their course of action, how much effort they put forth, how long they persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, whether their thought patterns are self-hindering, how much stress and depression they experience, and the level of accomplishments they realize.”
– Albert Bandura, Psychologist and Author of Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control

How Diverse Personalities Play Out in Lord of the Rings

The Nazgul, being 9 virtually immortal warrior kings of ancient-times, were unable to capture 4 middle-aged Hobbits, each 3 to 4 feet in height, who eat at least 6 meals per-day. This can only be a result of a lack of diverse personalities, diverse ideas, and diverse strengths in the Nazgul’s work group.

If Frodo had become the 10th Nazgul after being stabbed with the Morgul blade on Weathertop hill, I am sure that the other 3 Hobbits would have been captured in short-order due to an infusion of new ideas, strengths, and tactics into the Nazguls’ team.

Personality Diversification Secured the Fellowship’s Success

The Fellowship, on the other hand, was full of diverse personalities, providing them with key competitive advantages:

  • The Hobbits’ warm personalities endeared them and allowed them in turn to influence powerful influencers throughout Middle Earth, including the Steward of Gondor, the King of Rohan, Faramir the Protector of the Land of Ithilien and son of the Steward of Gondor, Elrond the Ruler of Rivendell, and Galadriel the ruler of Lothlorien.
  • Aragorn’s natural leadership and loyalty to the achievement of organizational goals made all members of the team feel safer and well supported.
  • Gimli’s over-achiever personality and fierce work-ethic allowed him to excel despite his physical limitations (for instance, he defeated more Uruk Hai at the battle of Helm’s Deep than even Legolas, an immortal Elf warrior).
  • Legolas is of the all-seeing, all-hearing, immortal, 3,000 year-old, high-achiever type of personality.
  • Gandalf’s commanding presence and excellent delegation skills resulted in a highly-organized work-team.
  • Boromir, unfortunately, created a toxic working environment and had to be let go (a harsh reality of the workforce).

By diversifying the personalities of the Fellowship’s team members, the team was able to specialize in a wide variety of areas. By organizing a work team to have as many diverse personalities as possible, the chances that all areas of a project will have a motivated individual who is confident in their skills and abilities to complete that task is improved. If a team lacks diversity of personality, such as the Nazgul did, too many team members will specialize in similar skills and abilities, affecting the team’s ability to successfully complete some necessary tasks.

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