George Floyd’s story is horrific. It has implications for society and for the leadership of organizations. The story I want to share here is the case of one man who is trying to respond. My friend is a doctor who chairs a department in a major medical system. For eight years, he has devoted himself to understanding, teaching, and practicing positive leadership. This has led him to create an ever more open culture. He recently sent the following message.
Dear Faculty, Staff, and House Officers:
Like all of you, I have been pained by racist events this week, culminating with the death of George Floyd. I’ve cycled through sadness, frustration, and outrage. Although these events are happening elsewhere, they are not isolated to time or place. I want to be clear that they are incredibly relevant to our profession. I don’t have the words to describe this adequately, so I thought I would share a story.
One year ago, there was an act of racism and hate here in our workplace. At that time, there was a town hall in the auditorium that I attended. During the open mic part of the session, a faculty member shared: “As a black woman, the hardest thing about these recurring acts of racial violence is that I sit at home and cry, and then come to work and everyone is acting like nothing happened.”
Listening to this, I felt intense shame. I was complicit in this. At that moment, I understood what it means to have privilege, as a white man, to watch the news, and then set these horrors aside and go about my work.
Now when I see these events unfold, I immediately think about her story. While we are all watching these events, and many of us are outraged, the burden does not fall equally. Not all of us fear for our own lives, or those of our parents, siblings, or children. What can we do?
As a leader, I know I am supposed to have answers; but I have more confusion than clarity. The only thing I know is that we need to do more. Let us make sure to not be silent. Let us make sure to check in on those amongst us who may need the most support. Let us redouble our efforts to understand and reflect on our own biases and privilege. To use the phrase coined by Ibram X. Kendi, let us learn to be anti-racist. This is the only path to building an equitable culture.
We will be holding a town hall on Monday evening to create space to open dialogue on this topic. As I hope you understood from my story, sharing perspectives is an incredibly valuable way to build culture. If you are interested in sharing your perspective in the town hall, please reach out to me. More will be forthcoming regarding the details of this town hall.
In this message there are many things that impress me. I would like to note the following points.
- He recognizes a problem that has occurred elsewhere.
- He monitors and owns and shares his own emotions.
- He brings the problem home, shows how it is relevant to all.
- He shares a potent, personal story.
- He articulates the personal impact.
- He takes accountability for his own complicity.
- He further articulates the impacts.
- He asks what can be done.
- He confesses his vulnerability and lack of clarity.
- He confesses his need to do more.
- He suggests practical actions that will make a difference now. They are:
- Do not be silent
- Provide support
- Examine your own biases
- Become more than you are
- Build an equitable culture
- Participate in a public conversation
After he sent me a copy of this message, we communicated briefly. He expressed great concern about the upcoming town hall. He spoke with genuine humility about the immense challenge of moving from reflection to action. What impressed me is that, despite his limitations and fears, he was, in fact, willing to take action. Instead of burying the issue, he was, with great trepidation, opening a crucial, collective conversation.
Shortly after the message went out he received one in return. A woman wrote that she was the faculty member who spoke out earlier. She writes that she was crying when the current message arrived. She describes her pain and writes the following, I share it with her permission.
As much pain as I feel, it fills my cup right now to know that there are some in leadership who are taking action. It has been extremely hard to be a black, female faculty member here, and the only reason I have not quit is that I know that racism and sexism are everywhere. Having lived through the pain, it is even sadder to realize that, as a well-paid physician, who has the privilege of being able to use my voice within the ivory tower, many of my people have far less financially and were taken out of the academic game before they were given a chance.
As the sun rises right now, it is so dark for so many of us. At least you will have the benefit of knowing that your black faculty, and patients, and everyone we touch, will come much closer to arriving at where they would have in a just world, because of your leadership.
This is a difficult time. The issues are enormously complex so there are no simple answers. Yet, as in all times of great challenge, they is much opportunity to lead. As my friend rightfully observed, “sharing perspectives is an incredibly valuable way to build culture.”
- What do you think the department chair did right?
- What do you learn from the response of the pained woman?
- Do your people have issues that should be surfaced and discussed?
- In considering the case, does your conscience call you, as a leader, to do anything you have not done before?