“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be changed by humans.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
One evening last week, our neighbor stopped my partner and me in our cul de sac. As an executive at a global retailer, he asked, “What are you seeing, and what are you saying to leaders around Black Lives Matter? I’m struggling here.” He was experiencing the sense of discomfort at the moment and of being at a loss as to how to appropriately respond that so many of us from privileged seats may have experienced in one way or another. So many clients have inadvertently stepped on what feels like landmines around the issue. Some have encountered a backlash for not saying anything, some for saying something not quite right enough. Most folks are being challenged to show or prove what they will do to make changes, and while leaders and their organizations know this, not every leader knows exactly what they will do.
As I’m fumbling with my whiteness, privilege, or intersectionality–perhaps for the first time–others are beginning to be seen and heard perhaps, too, for the first time. I would hope that means that many of us in positions of privilege are listening better to our own biases and internal narratives around race, and listening better to others so that our eyes and ears and hearts stay open. Feeling all the feels as they arise, as uncomfortable as they may be, is part of the process. “In the practice of belonging, we are not seeking prowess or dominion over anyone else, but the ability to live into the conversation between things,” notes author Toko-pa Turner.
I was reminded of how simple some efforts of support and inclusion can look. A colleague relayed a story about a Muslim engineer at a design agency who began to feel viscerally the fear of what might happen to him because of the color of his skin after the shock of the 9/11 attacks. He hopped on a bus to go to work and slipped into work, hoping to just get through the day. As the engineer arrived, a colleague of his, a Black designer he knew only by their working relationship, saw him arrive, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked, “You good?” The engineer looked up into the designer’s eyes and nodded. He felt relief to have the support, to have someone who knew what it was like looking out for him.
Other employers are beginning to see the deep roots of their own privilege for the first time. While George Floyd brought so much to light, it’s been a privilege for some to not pay attention or to not know the names of those lost before him. Now, we cannot turn away from the glaring ubiquity of how entrenched racism is in our politics, policies, biases, and our own hearts. Our own embodied racism and oppression affects how we are with ourselves, our relationships, and the teams that we lead. Being a conscious authentic leader includes being an inclusive leader.
If you have a company with a mind to team development, diversity, equity, and inclusion have likely been your radar for a while. In today’s world, this work becomes paramount. For today’s leaders, even more so. “Instead of trying to change some people to fit the organization, we must focus on transforming our organizations to fit all people,” writes Ben Hecht in an HBR piece titled Moving Beyond Diversity Toward Racial Equity.
This week’s podcast guest Jennifer Brown, author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, seconds that notion. “Successful movements for equality have often turned a critical corner when those outside the demographic who need the most support step forward to learn more, to challenge their assumptions, and to advocate and push forward on the behalf of that demographic,” she writes.
While many leaders are struggling to find the right words and a path forward, they are also holding important questions about inclusivity in their organizations. What does it mean to be an inclusive leader? What makes inclusive leaders different? How do they, as author Ursula Le Guin notes above, change the established power in charge and use their power for good?
Jennifer Brown puts a pen to this:
“Inclusive leaders bring more of themselves to the workplace than other leaders. Believing that through their own vulnerability and authenticity, they can create space in which others can do the same. They don’t just push others to be blindly authentic, but plan with them to stretch forward, to take calculated risks while never encouraging someone to push themselves out there before they’re ready or put themselves into career peril. They always offer to be present alongside others to lend a voice. They seek as much feedback as they give, they are aware of and know how to utilize their privilege to raise issues, to challenge norms and behaviors, and to root out and prioritize core issues that perpetuate exclusionary dynamics. They push themselves as much as they push others and they do all of this consistently.“
First Round Review puts it simply in a highly recommended piece on The Manager’s Guide to Inclusive Leadership — Small Habits That Make a Big Impact, “ Inclusive leaders leave every person and every room better than they found it.” Learning the ways of inclusion is part and parcel of becoming an authentic leader. You can’t have one without the other. Leadership without inclusion is oppression under a different guise. Inclusive leadership is how privilege can be used for good, and how power dynamics can shift from oppressive to free and equal.