In June of 2020, my family and I were visiting with some good friends of ours - a family of three generations of women. They are Black. Or African-American. They each identify differently, which led to a great conversation about race vs. culture vs. identity, and how each of us sees our identity, compared to how 'others' see us. Being seen by others as we see ourselves is one characteristic of social validation, knowing we matter to others.
Our two families are the kind of friends who regularly talk about hard stuff. We share personal experiences, past and present. So of course, we talked about the protests, police brutality against Blacks, about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Amy Cooper. We're pro-active people, so we focus on what we can do. Discussing the social divisions that have exploded into our consciousness, not just in the last few weeks and months, but over the last several years, we solemnly agreed - we're in the throes of a pervasive lack of humanity. Heavier words - equity, inclusion, fairness, justice - are all completely appropriate themes to reflect on now. But we lamented the lack of compassionate, generous behavior and disposition, which defines humanity.
It's time to return humanity to leadership. We are people leading other people. If you're like most of my clients, you've been thinking hard about what to say and do right now. If you're a white leader, you may be feeling uncomfortable about even raising the topic. If you're a black leader, you may have been working hard to keep your feelings in check. We're all thinking about how to change something as large as institutionalized racism, and how to show up as the trustworthy leaders we want to be.
I favor simple (not easy) answers. So, what to do as a leader? Lead with humanity. Lead from the core belief that each person has the same rights that you have. Start there. Don't worry about doing what's "right," embrace your full humanness. We're a social species, a herd species. We thrive in groups and need social connections to remain healthy, hopeful, and creative. Each person wants to matter, to be respected, valued, cared for. We all want, we need, to feel safe. If you lead this way, people will feel it and will bring their full selves and capabilities to how they work with you.
Lead from the core belief that each person has the same rights that you have. Start there.
See the humanity in each person you encounter. Remind yourself that we're all flawed; we're all doing the best we can, given our circumstances; and we all deserve to be seen and feel valued.
Listen with empathy and curiosity to others' stories. Respect their different experiences. Ask what it's like for them. Show you care for the person you are with.
Look inside yourself and root out your own unconscious biases (we all have them). Without shame, explore and update your core beliefs.
Involve others and audit your business practices. Look at them with fresh eyes, to root out the unconscious biases built into how your organization operates. If you can't find any - look harder. And ask more people. Figure out what's needed.
Take action within your circle of influence, whether it's your department, a business unit, the whole organization, local politics, or a larger circle. Small imperfect actions taken quickly will build momentum and will signal your intent.
We all have much to learn and need one another to learn how to return humanity to leadership - and along with it the generosity of character and behavior that represents the best of our species.
If we each remind ourselves that working well together requires a balanced focus on task, process, and relationships, we can make the most of this challenging time. Focus on the people first, and your relationships with them. Involve them in the task of surfacing and eliminating unconscious racism. And together, rebuild the processes through which we run our companies.
That's what you can do right now, to be the leader you want to be, and build an organization you're proud of.