How to be an Inclusive Leader with Dr. Rob Owens, Leadership and Mindset Performance Coach

Dr. Rob Elliott Owens, CMPC, CSCS, BCC is a leadership and mindset performance coach trained in the mental and physical aspects of human performance. He currently consults with healthcare and business executives.  He is the former chair of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) Diversity Committee, and co-facilitated AASP’s Diversity in Sport and Culture course from 2017 until 2021. He currently serves on the certification council for the Certified Mental Performance Consultant credential. In addition to his coaching work, Dr. Owens has taught workshops and college-level courses on leadership development; diversity and inclusion; positive coaching; health and wellness; and group, team, and organizational dynamics. He is a board-certified coach and a nationally certified counselor.   

In this interview, Rob and Cindra discuss: 

  • Mindset practices needed to thrive 
  • What is means to be a humble leader 
  • How to be cultural inclusive 
  • What we should consider about culture when working with people 





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“Culture humility is the journey, whereas cultural competence is the destination.” -Rob Owens @Mentally_Strong
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“If we are not curious, we are not likely to ask the right questions.” -Rob Owens @Mentally_Strong
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Cindra Kamphoff: I’m excited that Rob Owens is joining us here in the podcast today how are you doing Rob?

Rob Owens: I am doing great it’s a nice sunny day here in Greensboro North Carolina has been raining a lot lately so I’m glad just to have no rain and some sun.

Cindra Kamphoff: Greensboro North Carolina has a special place in my heart, you and I both got our doctoral degree there, and my husband and I lived there for seven years, and I love Greensboro I love North Carolina.

Rob Owens: Yes, it can be a really nice place you know it’s one of those places where I like moved down here back in 1994 and the upper left so.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, my favorite part about North Carolina was the winters and you know we grew up in Iowa and then we moved to North Carolina, and we didn’t ever wear winter jacket, we thought that was just the best.

Rob Owens: Students on campus you’ll see people walking around students walking around in shorts and December so yeah that’s a huge thing.

Rob Owens: I grew up in New York, myself so during the winters it’s like now you’re dealing with snow and ice and all that stuff.

Cindra Kamphoff: Oddly my kids so want to wear shorts in December to school and I live in Minnesota.

Cindra Kamphoff: Who knows well Rob I’m really excited to talk with you today and for all of us to learn from you and your expertise and maybe just to get us started.

Cindra Kamphoff: How about you share a little bit about your passion and what you’re doing right now.

Rob Owens: Well, you know my passion, at this point is really focusing on executive leadership coaching, particularly from the standpoint of diversity inclusion.

Rob Owens: Diversity equity inclusion and belonging, as well as working with various populations primarily with public safety, so I’ve kind of switched.

Rob Owens: careers I retired from the state of North Carolina August 1 some kind of done with that 25-year career and I’ve moved into like private practice and doing my coaching work and so a lot of what I’m doing now, it seems like it’s like the kind of it’s like my third career, I would say, and so it’s really a combination of things that I have done, and in the past, so you know I started out my career working at a college guilt for college and I was working multicultural affairs.

Rob Owens: So that and that’s planning, so I worked a lot with the students there on leadership and governance, as well as their events and doing all the different types of work related to diversity and inclusion.

Rob Owens: But then I kind of after a couple years I switched careers I ended up going into the academic side and really working more in professional development, so I worked at the University of North Carolina for almost 25 years I spent most of my time there I also worked at another university, Winston Salem state, but the at UNC Greensboro I’ve spent a lot of my time professional development, professional development for faculty and how to you know inspire them to teach better whether that was teaching online teaching face to face, and so a lot of my current coaching practices, I think, are informed by my earlier careers and in diversity and inclusion, as well as in professional development, and how do we get people to become the best their best selves.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, I love it and congratulations on your retirement that’s just as we’re recording this is 11 days since he retired so congratulations.

Cindra Kamphoff: So today we’re going to talk a little bit about inclusive leadership we’re going to talk about cultural humility and let’s just get started with inclusive leadership, what does this mean to you inclusive leadership is really I think an important way for us to think about who we are, as leaders and the people that we lead and not only being aware ourselves and aware of who are quote unquote followers are but also being aware of how do we create that sense of belonging with people that we are leading because a lot of times we you know, at least in my experience when I’m talking to some other leaders it’s like you know your followers will tell you exactly what they need and people that you will tell you what they need, but sometimes we interpret that draw our own kind of cultural lens and we get to a point at times when we feel like our will do what’s best well I’m going to do what’s in your best interest leaders assignment to do that, but they’re really not listening to what their followers want.

Rob Owens: So as a quick example you know I’ve worked with like human resource folks in human resources I’ve like consultant, where they might have me come in to do some type of diversity, equity and inclusion training and I’ll ask questions about well why do you want me to come in to do this, or why do you want me to train you on this, because sometimes they want to deliver it themselves, instead of having an external person come in.

Rob Owens: And I can certainly understand that that type of indirect intervention, but when I asked that question often times, they’ll tell me exactly what they’ve been told by the folks at the company, but then they’ll also qualify by saying Well, this is what they said, but we really think they mean this, this is what we think they mean this is what we think they need.

Rob Owens: And so, I think the whole purpose of inclusive leadership is like to stop that filtering out.

Rob Owens: And really begin to listen to understand what the folks the people that you’re leading what they actually do need.

Rob Owens: And kind of authentic leadership and trying to create that sense of belonging, where your quote unquote followers again feel like they’re being heard.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, I think so powerful, and I think there’s a lot of different ways that we can apply what you’re saying Rob I’m curious about this idea of belonging and how would you define belonging. And how do we grow our follower’s sense of belonging.

Rob Owens: That’s a really good question a really good couple of questions when I’m thinking about belonging, particularly from a diversity equity and inclusion standpoint I’m thinking about creating an environment where people feel that their values and their identities are honored.

Rob Owens: So, it’s a thing, where it’s like so that, so the really a way for me to kind of explain it is to differentiate between inclusion and belonging I can invite you to a party, for example, so you might be included in that, but you get to the park.

Rob Owens: Or do you RD and everything at the party before they just seem so different then, then you are then that doesn’t create a sense of belonging might have been invited, but it’s like basically be invited to sit at a table to the other people’s food where when you don’t have a sense of that that you have contributed to what’s on that table.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, absolutely, and so what are some ways that you think that we can continue to grow in our belonging of others, or you know as leaders, what can we do to make people feel that they belong on.

Rob Owens: One, we have to, we have to invite them, you have to include them, but then the next thing after you includes them as asking what, do you want right and try not to filter it through our own worldviews, as I mentioned earlier, our own interpretations and it’s one of those things that’s easier, I know it’s easier said than done.

Rob Owens: Because I know there’s a lot of experience leaders out there, say I’ve been doing this, the way I’ve been doing it, and it seems to work for me, but then I would you know question at the say, is it really working or is only working for certain groups of people.

Rob Owens: You know so who is it working for so important for us to ask in terms of my leadership style in terms of inclusion and belonging who, who has that worked for in my company in my group and who hasn’t worked for and why.

Cindra Kamphoff: I’m powerful and I’m thinking about the clients that you work with that are leaders and executives and I’m curious about what have you learned from your work with people, one on one in terms of helping them build an inclusive leadership.

Rob Owens: It depends, because every person is different, but that’s a really good question and so I’m thinking about one particular person that I worked with who felt like that he was trying to manage up a little bit because he was feeling a lot of pressure from some of the members of the C suite of the organization and he was trying to kind of filter some of that down to this team, but not in a way that he felt like it would disenfranchised them or would stress them out or burn them out where they would feel like they would seek other seek other employment.

Rob Owens: And so, one of the things that he and I talked about was how much do you need to shield them from that and how much do you need to kind of shield yourself from that how much like I like to use the term protect your energy.

Cindra Kamphoff: I like it.

Rob Owens: Yeah so, it’s like, how can you protect your energy, as well as help to kind of build your team, but also keep it realistic because there’s also sometimes in certain leadership, like, I see the sometimes sales, where you have a leader who at one point in their career was an individual contributor, you know so they kind of had that on the ground, experience and then they get into a leadership role, and then they feel like that, whenever their subordinates are not you know picking up the ball and running with it sees a sports metaphor there that they have to do with themselves.

Rob Owens: So, getting them to think differently about how you can empower your employees to kind of pick up that ball and run with it for themselves, it does a couple things.

Rob Owens: Like first It empowers them; you know where you helped to grow them as a leader.

Rob Owens: And then number two it helps to protect your energy so like if you’re like I used to play club rugby you know you know rugby you can’t it’s just not one person out there, like in an type five there’s five of us in the scrum there’s just not one person pushing against the other team, so we have to be able to work together and have to be able to empower each other, and we have to protect our own energy in ways that you know don’t leave the stress of burnout.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah absolutely I think of when I think about protecting your energy, and I think that’s such an important point Rob’s I think about trying to have like a little she’ll around me, you know that energy might just bounce off because there can be a lot of disempowering energy that is allow us to thrive, when I think about this idea of inclusive leadership I’m curious about what do you think gets in the way of us being an inclusive leader.

Rob Owens: Work your way of us being an inclusive leader, one I would say, the first thing that comes to my mind, is our ego.

Rob Owens: For example for me, having worked in a 25 years in higher education and professional development, I feel that oftentimes when we become we thought we become the expert of something, then we begin to judge other people, people who live up to our standards right, and I see this tuna clients that I coach they’re very good people, but if they have seen a member of their team who they feel like doesn’t have the level of knowledge or skills that they should have you know they begin to you know we begin to get a little Georgie about that and there’s a difference right there’s a difference between a person who doesn’t have skills or doesn’t have the knowledge and a person who doesn’t want to gain the skills or knowledge right because that person doesn’t have the skills or knowledge they may not have it yet tut how can we help them instead of judge them, how can we help them to become a better member of our team, instead of judge them and it’s easy for us to go there because there’s times when I when I’m around there’s something like this if this person know that but then I have to check myself and say you know what you’re at that point to and you don’t know everything either.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, yeah, as I was listening, I was thinking about this idea of judgment, and I appreciate that you connected it to ego because I think that we particularly what you said about we have our own worldview, the way that we grew up in the environment weaker up and so maybe someone has a different opinion than us or thinks of things different than us right, it can be really easy to judge I’ve been on this about a year and a half journey to reduce my own internal judge.

Cindra Kamphoff: I do think it actually has worked and, but I still judge myself or others, but I try to quiet that inner voice.

Cindra Kamphoff: I’m curious Rob when we’re talking about inclusive leadership and cultural humility tell us about what you mean by cultural humility and how that connects to inclusive leadership.

Rob Owens: Okay, I knew that question was coming, so I want to give a formal definition of inclusive leadership and maybe we can talk through that here, so I mean like a formal definition of cultural humility, that is, and so there’s a some scholars hooks and her colleagues came up with this definition of cultural humility and basically it means the person’s ability to assume or maintain and to personal stance, where they are open to the other respects to with other with respect to aspects related to culture identities that other holds as important.

Rob Owens: So, again, is like our ability as individuals to not only assume an interpersonal stance, where we’re listening to the other person, but being able to hold that interpersonal stance and respect to another person’s cultural identity in the cultural identities that they see as most important, so we don’t have to attend to every one specific aspect of their culture, identity, but the areas where they feel that are most important to them.

Rob Owens: And so, we’re kind of in the way that I like to think about it’s like you know as a coach, you know as coaches we’re taught to use active listening.

Rob Owens: Right versus yes or for our clients in order to reflect back to them some arise and get them to reflect on their ways of thinking or knowing.

Rob Owens: I think, also humility kind of takes it to another step because it does require not only for us to listen actively listen, but also it requires us to kind of sit in their place for a minute to put ourselves in their shoes to try to suspend our own cultural values and judgments and you know, really engage with our clients in order to create resonance with them it’s like that create that kind of interpersonal resonance.

Rob Owens: And it’s just one of those things where I think again it’s easier said than done, you know because it’s hard for us to suspend our judgments, as you said, like because we’re judging other than most oftentimes because we we’ve learned to judge ourselves.

Rob Owens: Listen, in a way that we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes to understand what really matters to them, but it’s really you know what’s really important to them.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, thank you Rob.

Cindra Kamphoff: And thinking about how we put this into place and let’s say I’m leading someone in my company, and I have a quest to be culturally a degree my cultural humility and what you said about, we need to respect the culture identities that are important to them.

Cindra Kamphoff: How do we have that conversation what are some best practices there and how we learn will cultural identities are really important to them, and I think by cultural identities, you mean maybe a person’s racers sexual orientation or sexual identity or their ethnicity things like that.

Rob Owens: Yeah, exactly so when I’m talking about race, gender, age, you know all ability all of those types of things I’m talking about their cultural identities.

Rob Owens: And oftentimes it’s for me it’s again it’s really difficult I tried to place the emphasis on humility, or being humble, is where we have to start from even though use the term culture.

Rob Owens: If you’re not or if I’m not or whoever for the leader is not a humble person or you know need, we need to leverage that humbleness in order for us to engage with cultural humility right so when I’m thinking about being a humble leader, I’m thinking about again being able to listen, being able to, and not just listen but listen with discomfort.

Rob Owens: Listen.

Rob Owens: When people are saying things that kind of go against our own cultural values, you know that that’s really when it’s really hard to listen, because that’s when you begin to maybe reacts because the person is going against the things that we have learned the things that we have internalized the things that we might hold dear and it’s one of those things where it’s really hard to listen, at that point or two or two or to be humble and, particularly, I think, in leadership positions it’s like we want to often and I don’t say not all leaders, but when we are putting that situation, sometimes we tend to become defensive right.

Rob Owens: So, if you’re ever in a situation with someone you’re having a conversation with someone they start saying things you can start feeling it in your body, and these are becoming defensive, that’s when we want to engage our cultural humility, because that’s when it’s the most difficult to do like a ramming a conversation with people who are just like us who have some of the same values and belief systems that we have it’s easy to be culturally humble and that and that type of situation because we’re all coming from kind of Sam bro view but when it’s people that were interacting with people that were coaching, for example, people that we are leading, for example, and they’re coming at us with things that go against our values, then it’s really hard to exercise so exercise that would be.

Cindra Kamphoff: Absolutely and there’s two follow up questions I have on kind of what you said, what are the ways that you think that we can work to suspend our judgment, so that we can be open to hearing what other people’s you know different worldviews from us.

Rob Owens: I think the first thing is just being conscious of it, because as people are talking, you know it’s hard to like kind of stopped that narrative that we have in our heads like part of his being mindful of that and knowing that Okay, am I have this internal narrative going on but recognizing that this is an internal narrative, this is not what the person is saying.

Rob Owens: So, it’s like when sports psychologists talk about thought stopping, we know that that’s not really as accurate anymore right because we can’t really stop ourselves from thinking.

Rob Owens: But we can be very mindful of our thoughts, and you know kind of separate our thoughts from.

Rob Owens: Yeah, so we can separate ways of thinking from our ways of being and knowing and when we’re interacting with other people and then try to again put ourselves in their shoes by being curious right.

Rob Owens: So, a big part of it when I’m talking about the cultural humility, another aspect of not it’s just not being humble awesome you also want to be curious, because if we’re not curious then we’re not likely to ask the right questions.

Cindra Kamphoff: Powerful, so be curious be humble and when you’re let’s say working with the client, for the first time, do you ask them what cultural identities that are important to them.

Cindra Kamphoff: As I’m kind of thinking about people who are listening and how do we put this into place, so we can learn more about maybe the clients we work with and or the people that we lead and better understanding them and what’s important to them, so that we can be humble.

Rob Owens: Well, in the very beginning, I usually don’t because I want to establish that before, so what I tried to do.

Rob Owens: And I think there’s different ways of approaching it depending on one’s personality or individual attributes.

Rob Owens: But one of the things I tried to do is just listen to their story.

Rob Owens: Because if I listen and they’re going to tell me the things that they value if I asked the right questions, they’re going to tell me, without me asking them directly about it.

Rob Owens: And, and as you begin to establish that rapport and I feel like that, as creating that coaching relationship, then I might explore that more directly by usually don’t at the very beginning, I just let them tell me their story.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, I think that’s a really strong approach and then you start learning what’s important to them and the ways that they identify.

Cindra Kamphoff: Absolutely, so what other sort of tools or strategies, could we use to continue to be an inclusive leader and grow in our cultural humility, is that anything else you’re thinking about.

Rob Owens: Think part of it, and just as a caveat, I think that oftentimes our training and I see this again with companies that consulted with.

Rob Owens: That we have to move be on when I’m talking about cultural humility, one of the things that should have prefaced it with is that cultural humility is different than cultural competency because oftentimes people will confuse the two so, people will think like well you know I’m culturally competent, I took the course that Bob and Dr time for white top for asked.

Rob Owens: Right association with sports psychology the cultural diversity course, but you know that my course might give you some knowledge about cultural diversity.

Rob Owens: And it might lead more to cultural competency, but the problem with cultural competency it and first that you know something, are you are, you know what’s best, so let me probably give a better example that so this isn’t competency is like. The destination so it’s like Okay, I took this training, I did this, and so now I’m competent in order to work with these types of clients who are different than I am.

Rob Owens: Well, that may be, be the case, but the reality is that you know oftentimes our Kansas it’s the 11th again it’s like I don’t want to like can confuse our audience, but basically cultural competency is about the destination cultural humility is about the journey we have to constantly learn so it’s like we want to go back to like being curious because you may learn something in a training course on cultural diversity, you may learn something through that.

Rob Owens: You know I’ve taught courses, as you know, for asked on cultural diversity or I’ve done workshops on that.

Rob Owens: But that doesn’t mean that that’s all and be all about a particular group of people.

Rob Owens: because not everyone is scribes, even though it might be, for example, let me give a concrete example I know I took a gender and communication class once.

Rob Owens: And one of the things that I learned in that class is that said that women sometimes will qualify their statements, first, so they might say something of.

Rob Owens: You know, maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is the best way for us to go, so that kind of qualify may be this may be, maybe that Well, we know not all women do that right so.

Rob Owens: If you take this you take these things as absolute truths that’s when it can become a problem, so you know competency is something that we need to have that check that box off because that’s the culture that we live in, right now, you know if I you know.

Rob Owens: But we’re important for us to move beyond that and move to cultural humility, where we are open and we’re actually treating people as individuals and seeing what cultural identities even personal identity as social identities are the most important to them that that makes that makes sense.

Cindra Kamphoff: That makes sense yeah, I appreciate what you said about cultural humility is about the journey, whereas cultural competence is the destination.

Cindra Kamphoff: yeah, we’ve talked about this idea of inclusive leadership today and being culturally humble I’m curious about other trends, you see when you’re coaching people, and I know, one of the things that we talked about before we hit record is this idea of that.

Cindra Kamphoff: Sometimes we can allow the stress or anxiety or pressure of people that lead us to impact us and maybe that’s actually related to culture, perhaps, but I’m curious about what you’ve seen in terms of that happening and maybe ways that we can combat that.

Rob Owens: Well that’s it that’s a really good question, and what I have seen and again this is just this my own kind of viewpoint on this basis, some experience from talking to others and coaching leaders is part of it any type of stress that we that we feel that, and in this this whole notion of like how do I manage up like when I’m feeling that way when I’ve done a lot of pressure from my supervisor from other leaders in the company.

Rob Owens: You know how I do, how do I manage that, how do I manage their expectations, I think the first thing that I tell folks is that you know you want to protect your energy.

Rob Owens: You want to as much as much as possible, and you need to find, as you need to determine how best you can do that for yourself.

Rob Owens: Like I know how I try to protect my energy when I’m feeling that pressure so it’s going to be different for different people so for some people, it might be finding different ways of communicating.

Rob Owens: With them with them with people who lead them or who manage them with some people, it might be finding just alternative ways of thinking right and being mindful of that my current situation I’m not always going to be in this particular situation and then learning to control the control, it was I got that from you, by the way, syndrome.

Rob Owens: So not internalizing everything too because I think that sometimes the pressure that we feel is also internalize that we’re putting that pressure on our ourselves.

Rob Owens: Right I’ll give the example of one of my when I one of my first jobs, I mentioned, I worked in multicultural affairs, I had a supervisor who would get in the office at eight o’clock in the morning and would leave at five but they would come back for events at night on campus and like six to nine o’clock, and so I felt that oh if she’s doing that, then I need to do that too.

Rob Owens: You know, and I did that, for two years, I brought myself.

Rob Owens: And so, it’s just one of those things where you know learning to protect your energy and learning to cultivate energy from others right.

Rob Owens: What can we do in order to delegate some of that to other people, and so I use that oftentimes with clients to protect your energy and also can cultivate your energy by including others and the process.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah, I appreciate your response because I’m thinking about how we can’t control our leader, or we can’t control our colleagues that work with us so just recognizing they’re out of your control and we’re not necessarily going to be able to change them and change their response or their reaction, but you provided us to ideas you know, could you enhance your communication in some way, and then maybe what’s a different alternate way of thinking about the situation to help you protect your energy.

Cindra Kamphoff: And to help you cope with what’s going on at work or in your family.

Rob Owens: Exactly.

Cindra Kamphoff: Well Rob I’m so grateful, you have been on the podcast today, you gave us a lot of gems to think about we started talking about inclusive leadership and we talked about how our ego and our judge gets in the way of being an inclusive leader really helping people.

Cindra Kamphoff: Understanding people’s values and the identity identities that are important to them and being curious and humble in our conversation, so we can better understand the people that we work with and the people that we lead, and, at the end, we talked about protecting our energy by controlling what we can control and communicating and perhaps thinking of alternate ways of thinking about situations.

Cindra Kamphoff: How can people reach out to you to learn more about your work and to follow, along with what you’re doing Rob.

Rob Owens: Well, right now, I don’t have a website, but folks from contact me one via email at they can also reach out to me on psychology today, I have a profile there just search for rob owns it will come up and reach out to me via LinkedIn profile there too.

Cindra Kamphoff: Okay excellent, and do you have any final thoughts or advice for the high performers, who are listening that are working to be their best that they can be.

Rob Owens: My final thoughts is I always like this particular phrase it’s like keep it moving you know it’s like you know staying stills it’s not it’s not an option for me and I don’t think it’s an option for other high performers, so you know, keep it moving and remember that it is the journey, not the destination.

Cindra Kamphoff: Excellent Thank you Rob I appreciate you being here today.

Rob Owens: Thank you.