The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests around race and social injustice have created a pivotal moment for leaders of all stripes. Where you stand and what you say in this moment may very well define your professional legacy and shape your leadership brand in ways large and small for decades to come.
See, it’s easy to speculate about how you will lead and respond during a crisis. It’s easy to talk about how you’ll rise to the moment because a theoretical crisis—or a hypothetical one—is easier. But we are not in a theoretical time. This is not a moment of hypotheticals. The crisis is here, and your leadership moment is now. If you deem yourself a leader, you know this moment of global protests and the fight for equality doesn’t exist in some vacuum outside your organization or outside your area of influence. You know you must lean in and own your power to lead now.
The five conversations credible leaders must have in this moment.
How are you using your leadership to make a difference? Leaders—the credible ones—ask themselves, and others, the hard questions. They may have doubts and fears, but credible leaders know that this is precisely the time to step up and own your power to lead. This is precisely the moment to demonstrate leadership from wherever you are and from whatever level you sit, and it starts with listening. It starts with dialogue. It starts with uncomfortable conversations.
Your employees are watching what’s happening in America (and across the globe), and many might actually be protesting themselves. Your employees are paying attention—and your black employees are surely paying attention. They notice what you say. They hear your words and—maybe even more importantly—they hear your silence. Push yourself to get beyond your discomfort, and initiate the following conversations now with a commitment for ongoing dialogue.
Create a safe space for the following five conversations.
- A conversation to acknowledge what’s happening in this moment and to connect America’s history to the present. The entire country has been protesting for ten days now. Instead of ignoring what’s happening, have a conversation to learn from it, validate it and acknowledge it.
- A conversation to understand how employees and executives feel in this moment. Listen, listen and listen some more, but resist any temptation to force any employee to share if they don’t want to. Communicate and ask questions in such a way to help employees and executives know that you are at least trying to understand their pain. Share how and why the suffering you see matters to you and to other organizational leaders.
- A conversation about your stance on racism. Send a message—an unequivocal message—to indicate that you and the organization will not tolerate racism in any form. If you can’t do this, start with asking yourself why, and assess your own values and beliefs. If the larger organization has put out a statement, use it as a starting point for your own, or just communicate your own stance in alignment with any organization or corporate statement. However you do it, be certain to get your stance on the record.
- A conversation or dialogue expressing an appreciation for the disparities which occur outside the workplace. Regardless of titles, roles or positions, once each individual leaves the workplace, he or she walks out into society (one that many experience as unjust and unequal). Demonstrate concern for the struggles employees encounter by just living in a society where racism indeed still exists.
- A conversation around empathy. Create a dialogue on the concept of empathy and how the company/organization values and appreciates empathetic leadership. Ensure that everyone knows that empathy is a leadership competency that you value and expect leaders at all levels to demonstrate. This means that even when people don’t agree, they can—at the very least—strive to appreciate the struggles, challenges and experiences of others. Help people appreciate the value of taking on a different perspective or imagining themselves in another’s shoes.
If you fail to initiate or lead conversations about George Floyd or other matters around racial and social injustice, you risk leaving your employees or executives to wonder if you even care. You risk sending the message that you are neutral on racism. And this, more than almost anything else you do, will undermine any diversity and inclusion plans you have.
Credible leaders aren’t neutral about George Floyd, racism or inequality.
In 2020, organizational leaders simply can’t be indifferent about what happened to George Floyd. You can’t call yourself a leader with any credibility and display apathy for the police brutality George Floyd suffered or the persistent racism and inequality in society any more than you can neglect the importance of establishing diverse hiring policies or creating an inclusive work environment.
Jenny Johnson, chief executive officer of Franklin Resources Inc., wasn’t neutral when she fired Amy Cooper for racism last week. Amy Cooper was one of Franklin Templeton’s organizational leaders. She threatened the very freedom of a black man named Christian Cooper in Central Park on the same day that George Floyd was unjustly killed by police in Minneapolis, and she was fired two days later. Franklin’s CEO Jenny Johnson told Bloomberg, “The U.S. is in a lot of pain right now, and our African-American colleagues are in a lot of pain.” So no, Franklin Templeton wasn’t neutral on racism, and the company took immediate steps to investigate and then terminate an employee for what it publicly described as racism. This is the kind of leadership that confirms and validates diversity and advances a culture of inclusion.
Effective leaders can’t sit on the sidelines and remain neutral on racism. Successful leaders speak up so as to leave no doubt where they stand on creating a truly inclusive organizational culture where diversity and equity can thrive. Where do you and your organizational leaders fall on this spectrum? Is there any room at all for your team members, colleagues or stakeholders to wonder where you stand? Are you demonstrating leadership in this moment?
Credible leaders can’t—and won’t—remain silent.
Silence speaks volumes. If your organization isn’t firmly on record as standing against racial injustice and racism, then you are creating a wide-open gap for people to presume you just might be for it. If your organizational leaders and executives offer nothing but silence during this dire time in our nation, then employees—especially your black and brown employees—might very well perceive your silence as indifference. Employees are paying attention, and they might very well perceive silence on such weighty matters as racism, inequality and a lack of inclusion to somehow imply condoning the status quo.
Again, if you deem yourself a leader, this crisis is yours. George Floyd’s killing has brought forward a whole bunch of difficult and uncomfortable issues that too often get pushed to the back or under the carpet for some unspecified “better” time. Well that time is now, and credible leaders know they can’t remain silent, and—despite their discomforts—they won’t.
Before speaking out, however, I suggest you ponder your responses to the below questions. It’s important that you take a bit of time to process your own thinking on key issues so you can get prepared before you initiate the five conversations I outlined above with organizational leaders and employees.
- How are you—yourself—handling this moment? Do you know—and care—about the George Floyd case? Do you know why so many millions of others care? How can you learn more?
- Are you paying attention to the protests? Do you find yourself getting angrier about looting than you are about how—and especially why—George Floyd could have been killed in such a manger? If so, why might this be?
- Are you able to empathize and connect with the plight of the George Floyds of the world? If yes, how do you show it? Do your employees or colleagues know that you have this empathy? If not, why?
- Do you attempt to connect with what the protestors are protesting for? If you find that you haven’t been able to connect, are you open to objectively listen and learn more? With whom can you speak with and listen to?
- Have you noticed some of the organizations and organizational leaders who are putting out public statements of support, donating money and reevaluating organizational policies as a result of seeing police officers kill George Floyd just over a week ago? What do you think about these statements?
- If you have yet to make any kind of statement with your team, what messages do you think your continued silence might send to your staff, colleagues and customers? Is this okay with you?
- If you have any objections to having—and creating a space for—the uncomfortable and difficult conversations that need to occur within your workplace, why might this be? Engage in dialogue with your diversity and inclusion executive and the human resource leaders to discuss your concerns.
- Are you connecting, or even trying to connect, to the pain and suffering on the streets and in the news? If not, why?
- Do you understand how all of this will find its way into your business operations and how it’s already impacting your team members, colleagues or employees? Do you care?
- At the very least, are you committed to listen and learn more so you can understand these matters more deeply?
Credible leaders aren’t afraid to say #BlackLivesMatter.
Credible leaders aren’t afraid to say #BlackLivesMatter because they know that all lives won’t ever truly matter so long as black lives don’t.
If your instinct is to use the #AllLivesMatter hashtag instead of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, ask yourself this. Can all lives really matter when black lives don’t? Can #AllLivesMatter become a reality while black lives are excluded from equal rights, civil protections and economic and career opportunities? Also ask yourself whether you’d have the same reaction if someone said #CuringCancerMatters. Would you be compelled to dismiss that statement in exchange for #CuringAllDiseasesMatters?
Agreeing that black lives matter doesn’t mean you agree that black lives matter more than white lives or any other life. It simply means that you acknowledge, as witnessed by George Floyd’s killing, that far too often black lives simply don’t matter as much as other lives. Black lives are far too often valued less, and credible leaders know this. Even if they didn’t realize it in all its fullness before the George Floyd killing, they realize it now. And ignoring this reality is simply not credible.
Credible leaders demonstrate leadership in this moment.
Leadership is not about titles. It is not about seniority. It is not about status, and it is not about management. Leadership is about power and the ability to know when and how to use it to influence the people around you to do and become more!
Originally posted on Forbes