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Leaders Trapped in Cultural Unawareness

What is actually happening with our leaders? I don’t just mean our politicians, although they are key culprits. I am also referring to our corporate leaders, our higher ed institution leaders, our local leaders. In the past couple weeks, I have witnessed misstep after misstep, foiled statement after foiled statement. I have watched, with my jaw on the floor as leaders have stuck their foot so far down their oral cavity it evokes the same nauseating feeling as a COVID test swab probing your frontal lobe. It seems like our leaders in many places are floundering. We used to always say at West Point “it’s always fun and games till someone gets poked in the eye!” For me, this meant to be ready to lead when things got serious and out of hand. Unfortunately, We are in a “serious and out-of-hand” era. How many of you are tired of the weak, ridiculous apologies that we are seemingly subjected to daily as an aftermath of tone-deaf, insensitive comments made by an individual who has power, authority and influence? In these days, it is clear that “someone has been poked in the eye” and the frequent apologies give great insight into the types of things that were happening when it was previously just “fun and games”. Leaders seem to be trapped in a cultural Blackhole, the pull of which is so strong that it prevents them from escaping to a place of greater awareness. But today more than ever, it is important that they escape and elevate their cultural awareness game. Here are three adages that leaders must consider in these times.

1. With great power comes great responsibility! It is incumbent upon leaders in these highly racialized times to develop a thorough understanding of the diverse employees they lead, the diverse customer base they serve, or the diverse electorate that they represent. There is absolutely NO excuse for demonstrations of insensitivity or a lack of cultural competency among leaders, even if unintentional. We are told that ignorance of the law is no excuse and in these times, ignorance of how to go about demonstrating sensitivity or enhance one's cultural awareness does not fly.

2. Words have Power! It is widely known that there is immense power in the tongue (and by extension, the pen). A leader in these times must demonstrate extreme care not to malign people with whom he or she has influence. A significant part of this is knowing appropriate language and educating oneself on a winning, unifying vocabulary. No leader worth his/her salt would dare refer to members of the LGBTQ+ community with slanderous or derogatory terms that were once somewhat socially accepted. Why? Because the vocabulary and the appropriate sensitivity has evolved.

The same should be expected with how leaders refer to various racial groups. In the last few days, I have witnessed with my own two eyes official written communication from individuals in positions of significant leadership/power. In these communication pieces intended for broad distribution, leaders referred to “the blacks” and “the colored people” and “the negroes”! Are we in 2020? Leaders, the vocabulary has evolved! It is your responsibility to educate yourself and evolve with it!

3. The Way You Make Me Feel! Emotional intelligence is paramount right now as a leadership characteristic. The legendary Maya Angelou stated that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but they will remember how you made them feel”. As I think about this, the words of my elders ring in my ears. “If you don’t have something good to say, then hush!” In other words think about what it might feel like as someone decodes and receives what you are saying. I was told by a recent employer that I AM a disadvantage in “the room” because of how I look” and that I need to boast more about my credentials when I meet people to justify my presence. Now, I am pretty open-minded and recognized this for what it was! What a compelling but missed mentorship opportunity for a leader to another leader? Instead, because of the approach and a lack of emotional intelligence, I walked away feeling disgusted, unappreciated and undervalued. The way leaders make people feel impacts their performance so it is in their best interest to consider this.

Some people reading this may scoff at these thoughts as some other play for political correctness, another writer that is “all in his feelings”, or just another person that is “too soft”. I see it different. I am simply a leader passionate about giving and getting the best from those I influence. You cannot accomplish that if you are culturally incompetent, insensitive, immutable or lack emotional awareness about those around you! Come on leaders, you KNOW BETTER, so DO BETTER!

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