I’ve spent 90% of my career working with, developing, and supporting leaders as they ascend positions, take on greater responsibilities, and become more impactful in their roles. In recent years, it’s become increasingly important to me to see leaders awaken to their responsibilities to others and act with a sense of what’s right. Many leaders have a lot of power, and with that comes a responsibility to create a more just world.
Bryan Stevenson, Head of the Equal Justice Initiative, has a powerful quote in his book, “Just Mercy.” Bryan states, “…the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
This quote has lingered with me ever since I first came across it. Prior to reading Bryan’s work, I was exploring my own growth on these issues and elevating my understanding what “justness” means. This led to thinking about the role leaders play in creating a better world.
One of the opportunities afforded leaders is the ability to make decisions and lead in ways that care for all – not only those with favor. I’ve been fortunate to work with several leaders who have a natural sense of justness in their character. They’re particularly aware of the power they have as stewards of their organizations, which naturally extends to broader communities. The more I’ve learned about issues of inclusion, racial and gender bias, discrimination, and equality, and worked on my own biases, the more I see the systemic issues associated with inequality, and how even small changes in awareness and action can create meaningful change.
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching to mend the part that is within our reach. – Clarissa Pinkola-Estes
We all can take some level of responsibility for how those around us are treated and pay more attention to those who are overlooked. Leaders at every level – and particularly at the top levels – have an extra responsibility to lead justly as they have more power and set the tone for their organizations. I’ve coached leaders who have experienced bias directly and witnessed the lasting impact of such experiences. In fact, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have found that when someone is ignored or minimized, they feel pain in the same way as a person with physical trauma.
One leader I know has seen the need and value in building greater inclusion for women in a industry where there are very few women. He’s personally sponsored women and has insisted that his board maintain an even ratio of women and men.
Another leader is breaking glass ceilings herself and challenging the way people think about female leaders. She’s rare in leading a significant P&L in an industry with few senior women while mentoring others.
In response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, another leader I know reached out to the African American men in his company. He spent time seeking to understand their experiences and fears so he could respond by being a better leader for others.
Recently I spent three days with an executive and his team who lead a 5000-person global function. While the group was impressive in their deep expertise, intelligence and passion for their work, I was struck by something else. First, there was wide racial, ethnic and gender diversity in this group, rather than the typical ones and twos. Second, the contribution these leaders made demonstrated that all felt seen and heard. For example, when two leaders spoke at the same time, they both acknowledged the other and apologized, before offering the floor to their colleague. While this may seem like a small gesture, the tone of the exchange was one of mutual regard. Not one person or group was louder or more privileged within this team of twenty-four. I think about how this translates to elevating and unleashing the full talent of the group.
Leaders work hard to achieve big opportunities AND have the responsibility to lead justly – in ways that create a sense of deep care for everyone – not just the few. There are simple every day steps leaders can take to create more inclusion, care and respect. In our next series, we’ll explore the many ways leaders can make a difference.