“If we wait for perfection, we will never break the silence. The cycle of racism will continue uninterrupted.”
I have finally figured out why self-identity is overrated. It’s because, sooner or later, your image of who you are, your efforts, and your competence will get in the way of being more, doing more, and learning more. The journey between your intentions and their impact, it turns out, is the longest one of all, filled with dark paths and dead ends, punctuated by only occasional moments of sunlight and beauty.
I have often wondered whether my work as an executive coach and leadership consultant ‘makes a difference’ to my clients. (Hello, ego.). In the Sturm und Drang that is 2020, I have facilitated more sessions on unconscious bias to corporate leaders across the globe than I did in the previous ten years put together. Though I have led these sessions for the lion’s share of my career, I have noticed that I can be uncharacteristically anxious in these recent online sessions in the opening minutes.
What if I offend some of the white participants or engage their defense mechanisms by talking about racial bias and injustice? What if I don’t adequately hear, or honor, what people of color may be feeling or experiencing from centuries of systemic racism that goes far beyond the horrors of 2020? How can I lead this session with perfect humility, extensive technical knowledge, and nary a whiff of shame and blame?
My opening preambles tend to resemble a Pinterest quote board, with pithy statements like: “Having these conversations can be hard, but that’s where the learning is.” “You might screw it up and not say the perfect thing, but that’s OK.” “Lean in.”
I am the Zoom equivalent of my 25-year-old self, demonstrating the high ropes course at Outward Bound to a quaking group of campers, stumbling and slamming headlong into a pole. “Oh, gee, that looks like fun.” The chaotic jaunt from intentions to impact. Literally.
Without a doubt, it is critical for consultants and leaders to help establish psychological safety for any group that chooses to take up a ‘courageous conversation’ about bias and equality. I also am aware of the irony of my hyper-sensitivity, that the implicit privilege of ‘worrying what to say’ is a stress worthy of a passing mention. I am afraid to screw it up.
This emotional and mental freeze, where one perceives the hazards of social tripwires at every turn, is what seems to hold so many participants and leaders back from having an overdue dialogue about inequity in our country. It is a ‘psychological immune system’ that has us afraid to say the ‘wrong thing.’ Being seen as good, it seems, can feel even more important than actually being good or making meaningful progress.
As a result, we may do less to avoid making mistakes or potentially offending others. We may say less and revert to mores that suggest certain conversations are impolite and uncomfortable. Our relationships may suffer, or at best, feel awkward. Systemic ‘isms’ continue unwittingly and perpetuate, in part due to the discomfort we try mightily to avoid.
If I acknowledge that I might have benefited from white privilege or my gender or the accident of birth, doesn’t that mean I have culpability? Does that mean I’m wrong, or bad, or didn’t earn everything I have all on my own? I’m a good person. I’m not racist, or sexist, or….
It is possible and even likely that one of the biggest barriers to progress in racial or gender equity may be the fool’s gold of human interactions. We can become so enamored with our intentions (which we can see) that we lose sight of our impact (which we often cannot see).
My work as a leadership consultant and an adjunct faculty member teaching “Inclusive Leadership” places me squarely into dialogues around difference. Remarkably, I am still learning just how seductive and pervasive our desire, my desire, is to look good. I recently participated in a virtual session on culture competence, and the day’s topic was on how people identify sexually. I made a comment to the likes of; “It’s really no one’s business what one’s sexual preference is,” intending to express my frustration with the judgment of others and not to suggest that non-cisgender people should simply ‘keep it to themselves.’ The facilitator corrected my use of the word ‘preference’ and suggested that ‘orientation’ was more supportive (it is) as it avoids the fallacy that sexuality is a choice that might be ‘cured.’ The second facilitator explained to me, in front of 45 other Zoomers, that everyone needs to be able to talk about their sexuality and needs to be heard (they do, of course).
Boom. There it was. My psychological immune system kicked in and grabbed the wheel. I felt misunderstood. I felt stupid. I fleetingly thought about sending the Chat equivalent of an aerial banner to explain and to defend. Yup. My learning screeched to a stop, I felt scolded, and I silently pouted for the last few minutes of the session.
“Yeah, that’s not Judy. That’s Archie Bunker in Square 3.”
Eventually, I took the wheel back. I joked with my husband that this is what it must feel like to live with an in-house bias ‘expert’ whose intentions and impact sometimes have head-on collisions. I am learning to ‘eat my own dog food’ and sit in the discomfort of being imperfect, but at least I am in there, in the same ring that I invite others to climb into, stumble about, and at times feel on edge and vulnerable.
So, here’s where I’ve landed for now and what I’m learning right now. Leading is an inside game, and by inside, I mean, in one’s head. Nurturing only those thoughts that keep me squarely rooted in moral adequacy and delusional self-perception may feel better in the short-term, but that emotional fast food serves me, and society, poorly in the long run, shutting out learning and the very discomfort that can impel me into more meaningful action. By definition, leadership is about stretch and challenge, and not merely an abstract concept where one feels right, or good, or omniscient. Leadership is about being imperfect and messy and maybe even judged or disliked.
Beverley Daniel Tatum, in her groundbreaking book, “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, speaks perfectly of the courage needed to lead oneself; “If we wait for perfection, we will never break the silence. The cycle of racism will continue uninterrupted.”
At the end of the day, words and self-management do matter. Openness and humility, and a beginner’s mind are all critical to those of us who have lived in relative comfort over the course of history.
And, while my words certainly have meaning, they matter less than my actions. Talk is cheap. I make a point of connecting with people who are different than me, even when I worry about offending or being imperfect (and after I have done the heavy lifting of educating myself without asking others to school me on their realities). I run a pro bono leadership program for teens at a local Boys and Girls Club and occasionally worry (ego) about being seen as playing a ‘white savior,’ as a neighbor recently called me. I try to focus on what I need to do, albeit imperfectly. I keep stumbling around, working to create ever more direct lines between my intentions and my impact. I try to focus on actions. I try.
There is one conversation that now matters more than perhaps any others I may be having. It is the one I have daily with the editor in my own head, the one who perseverates and judges and wrings her metaphorical hands. Quietly, I ask her to please, just for today, shut up and lead.
(1) Based on the work of J.M. Kruger, D. Dunning, D.T. Gilbert, E.C. Pinel, T.D. Wilson, S.J. Blumberg, C.M. Steele, T.P. Wheatley, and others.
(2) Cohen et al., 2005; Murray, Holmes, MacDonald, & Ellsworth, 1998.