True leadership takes courage every day: the courage to have the hard conversations, to look at something old with a new lens, to ask tough questions and actively listen to the answers, to take a risk on someone, to take a risk on yourself.
As America confronted the ramifications of George Floyd’s murder earlier this year, deepened their understanding of the need for the Black Lives Matter movement, and grappled with nationwide political and civil unrest, leaders in workplaces across the country were required to show a new kind of courage: the courage required to hold a conversation at work about gut-wrenching and pervasive institutional racial inequality.
In previous generations, there would be no place at work to discuss such topics. But this conversation finds its natural place as we stand at the threshold of a new generation of leadership. The leader who favors compartmentalization and who wants employees to leave personal issues behind when they clock in is slowly falling out of favor as the walls erected between work and personal lives crumble and fall away.
In their place comes a new type of leader, one who is highly emotionally intelligent and successfully guides their team with compassion and empathy. This new generation of leader sees employees holistically, knowing that when they show up at work, they bring their hopes, fears, lived experiences, anxieties, and heartaches with them.
All too often, our Black colleagues have watched George Floyd and so many others die on video — then put on a suit and gone to work as though nothing has happened. Forcing our colleagues to compartmentalize heartache and fear permeates how we work together. This denial of lived experience impacts how we connect or fail to connect at work, how we come together as teams to deliver business results, or how we fail to do so. Refusing to acknowledge such deep pain is to fail to acknowledge a person’s wholeness.
The Courage to Listen
As a leader, being present, listening carefully, and helping your employees feel heard and understood sends a powerful message. We are all driven by a deep, primitive need to belong. Creating a space of belonging is perhaps the most important thing a leader can do to inspire a team and achieve results.
It takes courage to look your Black boss or employee in the eyes and say, “Are you okay? How can I support you? This must be very difficult for you, I can’t imagine. I am here to help you in any way you need help. I care about you. I want to listen to your experiences, if you want to share them. I believe you. I see you. Your pain is my pain, too.”
It’s tempting to shy away from these conversations, for fear of saying the wrong thing. However, saying a well-intentioned “wrong thing” with an open heart, is far less damaging than saying nothing at all.
The Courage to Speak
When leaders speak, their workplace power and influence follow them into the conversation. Their role amplifies their voices and their messages. A single story becomes a shared story. When they go first in these courageous conversations, it gives others the courage to follow. Speaking up teaches that vulnerability is okay and that work is a safe place. It can turn an “us versus them” viewpoint into an “all of us” environment. It builds a common humanity in a workplace, which in turn helps people get business done.
If we are to create truly inclusive workplaces that value diversity of thought, we must start by having the courage to listen. And then we must use our voices to speak out in support of what is right and true.
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