Like many others, the last few weeks have given me the opportunity to engage a wide variety of people in conversations that for too long have been silenced. From the mainstream use of the once-radical phrase “Black Lives Matter” to serious new conversations about structural racism and white supremacy, these are, indeed, unique times.
Many of these new conversations have occurred with leaders in business, often with CEOs who want to show their support for the push to change America for the better, but who are hesitant to act. They’ve expressed their concerns about a range of issues, from the potential polarization their comments may incite to the risk of damaging their brands if they get it wrong. There is a lot on the line.
For those of you who see yourselves in similar shoes, wanting to act but not necessarily knowing how, let me offer some insights based on my own experience with gifted leaders who demonstrate both foresight and courage in complex environments. These insights have emerged after more than two decades of working in the public and private sectors, with leaders at all levels and in all kinds of environments.
First, remember that it is always in your organization’s interest to take a holistic view of the landscape before you act. This truism applies in business as it does in advocacy and in government. The environment matters. The environments in which your employees live, learn, play, and pray do (or will) affect their performance at work. Dysfunctional societies tend to produce dysfunctional people, and dysfunctional people are likely to carry that dysfunction into their places of work, places of worship, places of play, and beyond.
This is why this moment is so important. We’re coming to see that the very things that should make our society functional—notions of truth, fairness, and equality—are under threat. In fact, they have been systematically undermined. The dysfunction that we see all around us will not only continue to constrain the impact of your employees, it will destroy the environments in which you make and sell your products and services.
The legendary Peter Drucker is characterized on the Drucker website as being a person who “came to his life’s work not because he was interested in business per se.” They write that “what drove him was trying to create what he termed ‘a functioning society.’” If you are a CEO who is witnessing what many believe to be our best chance at removing the dysfunctions in our society that privilege some at the expense of others, the time to act is now.
I know you’re concerned and perhaps even scared to act. You may be afraid of making a mistake, or afraid that you will come across as insincere, presumptuous, superficial, uninformed, selfish, or even frightened. These are all real and valid worries. But they are landmines along the path to influence. Let me offer some principles for progress to help you avoid these landmines.
You say: I’m afraid to make a mistake. I say: Embrace your vulnerability. We all make mistakes and there are consequences for making a mistake. One of those consequences is forgiveness. When you are willing to embrace your vulnerability and to convey that sense of vulnerability to others, they’re more likely to forgive mistakes when they know your intentions. If you remain silent, reserved and dispassionate, you run the risk of appearing disinterested and apathetic. It’s better to embrace your vulnerability publicly and appeal to the spirit of generosity that exists in those who want you to take a stand.
You say: I’m afraid I’ll come across as insincere or phony. I say: Acknowledge your self-interest. It’s better to be honest and upfront about some of the very real concerns that motivate you. It’s okay to be interested in your brand. It’s okay to be worried about your bottom line. But you need to also express an understanding and place importance on the interests of others—of your employees, of your partners, and of your customers. We all have an interest in a functioning society that is fair, inclusive, and just.
You say: I’m afraid I’ll look arrogant or presumptuous. I say: Adopt a participatory process. You don’t have to do this alone, nor should you. Don’t enter this conversation with hubris. Instead, seek the participation of those who are most affected. Let them help you make informed choices about how best to make a contribution to this effort. Invite the participation of your community in the search to find the most meaningful way to promote the values your organization holds dear.
You say: I’m afraid I’ll look like I’m superficial. I say: Act intentionally. Don’t make the mistake of jumping too hastily on the first suggestion that someone random in your network throws your way. Commit to educating yourself on the issues and do what you’re trained to do—go to the root cause of the issue. Our society needs interventions and solutions that are substantive, so act intentionally. Be prepared to explain why you are doing what you are doing. Be ready to explain your theory of change, and if you don’t have a theory of change, go back to the previous step. Adopt a participatory process.
You say: I’m afraid I won’t be able to see around the corner. I say: Establish feedback loops. It’s perfectly reasonable to take small steps at first. You probably have entrepreneurial instincts that you can apply in this moment. Use them. Try something small, learn from it, refine, and then adapt. Feedback loops that embed insight and suggestions from your employees is a great way to keep them engaged and to make course corrections when you veer off the road. Feedback loops that take into consideration the input from your customers, as well as from your partners, offer you data you can use to develop the foresight necessary to see what’s ahead more clearly.
You say: I’m afraid I’ll appear self-righteous or privileged. I say: Leverage your relationships to open doors for others. This is something you can do individually and organizationally. Use your privilege to identify and to remove the structural barriers that are not fair, are not inclusive, and are not just. Then, exert influence on others in your network to do the same.
You say: I’m afraid we’ll lose focus and lose momentum. I say: Align your internal goals with your external goals. We all know the adage, “If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” You can keep people focused and committed on intentional action by aligning your internal performance goals and performance measures with the external outcomes you wish to see. Hold yourself and your employees accountable not only to demonstrating fair, inclusive and just practices internally, but to doing the same for everyone else who does business with you.
You say: I’m afraid my community isn’t ready for this. I say: Bring the future forward and stand on the right side of history.
Remember, leadership is not about being comfortable or doing only what everyone is ready for. It is about being willing to go to the front to take that first step and leading. As I return to the work and life of Peter Drucker, I am reminded of something else he is credited with saying. He prided himself on his ability to “look out the window and see what’s visible but not yet seen.” I hope you will find the courage to see the impossible. Perhaps, these principles for progress can serve as a playbook for action.
About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.