The late Georgia congressman John Lewis had a well-earned reputation for being uncannily optimistic, courageous, and values-driven. These characteristics were also core to his identity as a leader. Although Lewis was brutally beaten by police during a 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., he said, “I have an obligation to continue to do what I can to help because I am here to continue to tell the story.” His final public statement challenged us to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble” by pursuing nonviolent protest and taking a stand against injustice and in favor of unity and peace. He reminded us that rocking, and even capsizing, the boat — not returning to business as usual — is needed to bring about a world that is more racially just than the one we inherited.
In recent months, many company leaders have embraced good trouble in their organization. In response to the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, and protests over criminal and economic injustice, countless leaders have spoken out publicly. They have donated millions of dollars toward causes focused on ending the harmful effects of systemic racism or sought avenues to provide their company’s goods and services to underserved communities that would benefit from greater economic development. Many have started auditing the systems and processes that create racial inequity in their organizations, pledging to create more opportunities for people from underrepresented groups. They have sponsored town halls and other forums intended to shine a light on race and racism, and have encouraged managers and employees to keep these conversations going.
To realize the progress being promised, today’s strong momentum needs to be sustained in the months and years ahead. And that could prove challenging. In addition to having to resist the tendency for business priorities to naturally shift to activities more focused on the bottom line, we are in the midst of a pandemic. As the devastating health and economic realities of the coronavirus continue to sink in, senior leaders will become mired in business contingency planning. With that comes the risk that the spotlight on racial justice will dim and issues of racial inequity will continue to plague their company.
To combat this risk, senior executives need to act now to clearly define their identity as leaders in the fight against injustice, guided by transparent policies, compassionate conversations, bold strategies, and an unwavering commitment. Such action is critical, because the success of any racial equity and inclusion initiative starts at the top. Without executive-level buy-in and support, the initiative will likely fail to achieve its intended objectives. These four principles can provide the basis for that ongoing support.
1. Be transparent about policies and progress. Regardless of the company’s approach, leaders need to be transparent in explaining the potential value their initiatives can have for employees, the organization, and society at large, while also acknowledging the difficult road ahead and the organization’s openness to feedback. For example, executives can create public or internal company statements that communicate clearly and consistently what they understand but also admit what they do not yet know about racial equity and inclusion. In addition, leaders should assign clear roles and responsibilities and determine what should be transparent to whom, and through which mechanisms.
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