The High Road

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

– Maya Angelou

In light of recent events, I can’t turn away from as much as I used to be able to, especially in how I relate to my own privilege. As I begin to see my biases more clearly for the first time, sometimes catching them awry in the course of a day, I can feel how deep those imprints impressed upon me. When I sit with them, contemplate how they’ve played out in my life and leadership, and notice where they show up these days, I wonder: What is the alternative? How else can I respond? What’s another model for how to be with this or that situation? How else can I be with a newfound uneasiness, with the discomfort of seeing my behaviors more clearly, or with not knowing quite what to do with it all? 

If we look at our own specific way of knowing the world, and how our own imprints have shaped us and our beliefs and behaviors, ‘what to do’ can be different for each one of us. We each have our own pile of work to do right in front of our nose. “What we do is different based on the bodies we are in, and the power we are afforded,” Regina Smith reminds us in this recent episode of the Reboot Podcast. Her work– as well as that of her partner Amanda Aguilera–looks closely at power dynamics in our inner landscape, teams, and organizations.

The systemic problems that are coming to light in ways people like me cannot turn away from in this moment in history require systemic solutions. Many of these solutions begin with the work we each can do examining how race and power are embedded and play out our experience of the world. This work could, at this point, almost be considered a civic duty and a solemn responsibility. As Amanda notes in this conversation, these problems we’re seeing, that we’re facing, that we’re seeking solutions to, also require solutions from a perspective that is different than what created these issues in the first place. She calls for a non-dual perspective. This is likely something most of us aren’t used to in our day to day, nor is it the water in which most of us were raised, and it’s perhaps especially rare in our work life. 

How do the systemic problems we see in the headlines on race, oppression, and power show up in our workplaces? 

If we get a glimpse of what can be created in organizations, then perhaps we can begin to see where power dynamics are at play and out of balance in our own organizations (or within our own leadership). Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, authors of Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, track these elements of power in their work. They refer to these as characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. Such aspects show up in our organizations and our company (or family!) cultures by the nature of what culture is: the culmination of behaviors and the way things are done amongst a group of people. Like most parts of culture, many of these elements go unnamed or uncontested, simply because they are hardly recognized. They are so pervasive, they can seem invisible. However, they are indeed felt by the folks in these cultures–at all the strata named and unnamed. Importantly, it’s well worth noting that these behaviors short change not only people of color but white people as well. 

Take 5 minutes to read through this PDF. I’ll wait right here. (It’s worth it–promise.)

  • What came up for you as you read each section? 
  • Which elements feel familiar to you? 
  • Which have you experienced on the receiving end? 
  • Which elements have you been part of creating? 
  • What is prevalent in your company’s culture today? 

Now that you have seen this, it’s difficult to unsee. When I read this, I could see myself and my own leadership tendencies in quite a few sections. And for the first time, I began to see these behaviors as oppressive. I began to see them as ways in which I sought to protect my (presumed) power and some sense of control. 

Looking at culture through this lens of oppression and power structures, I began to recognize issues that we are often called in to work with our clients on in 1-1 sessions and in Team Experiences, whether it’s with executive teams or whole organizations, in a different light. This work, when done well within an organization, does create more space for all of the bodies in the room. However, shifting to another way of being, creating, executing, and organizing together can be challenging, often for those who hold power (or, for those who hold it tightly). 

A large part of the antidote is making more space for humanity. It’s knowing how to navigate our own nervous systems, how to know ourselves so we can be well with others, how to listen to what’s being said, how to ask better questions and put our assumptions aside, how to communicate clearly and cleanly. It’s being adult enough to know that our way of knowing the world is not the only way, and if there are two bodies in a room, that’s two wholly different worlds to seek understanding amongst and between. We can grow ourselves in our own emotional and inner-personal maturity to know how to navigate our own nervous system in the midst of the other nervous systems around us. We can be present. We can handle hard conversations about hard things with grace. 

Another big part of the antidote is making the unconscious conscious so that it doesn’t run our lives–personally, and in our company cultures.

We each have our own work to do to be able to show up this way for each other (I know I’ve certainly got mine). As leaders, we have our work to do personally and the responsibility to examine how our power plays out in the organization. As the leader, you are afforded a certain amount of power. The question becomes: what do you do with it? The mission for each of us, should we each choose to accept it, is to learn what it means to take the high road, what it means to preserve other’s dignity as well as our own by building non-oppressive cultures.