Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes regularly for WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – If you’re familiar with this column, you know it typically focuses on leadership challenges and opportunities for development. I try to keep away from politics, but this week, considering what happened in DC, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge what I saw as a dire illustration of destructive leadership. I’d feel careless if I didn’t point out what we can learn from this moment, as leaders and as people, and what actions are necessary to move ourselves forward.
It’s easy to look at other leaders and name the ways they have failed. It’s easy to point fingers, and it’s easy to shift blame, but it’s more important to look critically at yourself and what you are doing — or not doing — to make change.
As the New York Times put it, “business is about accountability, and this sad episode in our nation’s history deserves more of it.” The problems that bubbled to the surface last week cannot be solved with the snap of a finger, nor did they come into existence overnight. Resolving them will take time and work, and that work will happen on a personal level. It’s going to take responsibility and development.
As leaders, we must each reflect on our own language and actions to clarify what kind of leaders we are and what kind of leaders we want to be. Then, we must move quickly out of reflection and into strategy and measurable action if we hope to make a difference. Whatever this week made you think about and feel, here’s how you create sustainable change around it.
Start with reflection and self-awareness.
In a recent article, Harvard Business Review dove deep into this topic, urging business leaders to actively develop accurate internal and external self-awareness. Know who you are and what you stand for, but also take the time to learn how other people really see you. You are likely to be surprised by the difference.
As they wrote, “the human tendency to judge ourselves by our intent — not our impact — makes occupants of influential roles blind to how others perceive their behaviors.” That’s why it’s important to have business partners, coaches, colleagues, and team members who will speak to you honestly and hold you accountable for your impact.
Invest in your own personal development to transform your thinking.
The hard but inspiring truth of it is that your team is always watching what you do. They’re listening, reacting, and responding to your example. They notice what you spend your time on and what you feel strongly about. You can use that power for good to make a positive impact on people and the planet and to create profitability that cultivates community change, or you can use it selfishly to advance only yourself.
Social transformation starts with individual change. As I have heard from so many of my C-suite colleagues, the one thing that really moved the needle for an inclusive culture in their organization was their own investment in personal development. The more they worked to transform their own thinking, the more traction they saw around their initiatives. Shifting culture is big, hard work. Don’t underestimate the power of your example.
Take credit for the good and the bad.
Leadership responsibility is real. If you’re going to take credit for the victories, you have to take credit for the failures as well. Too many leaders are happy to soak up attention when things are going well but run like roaches when the lights come on and something goes wrong.
Harvard Business Review points to bias here, saying “people naturally view their abilities to be responsible for their successes and external factors to be the cause of their failures. This tendency — known as self-serving bias — protects our egos but inhibits our ability to receive constructive feedback.” In other words, it leads us to blame others for our failures. Instead, we must accept responsibility and hold ourselves accountable for our real-world impact.
Personalize the change you want to see.
You don’t have to be in the C-suite to make a difference. Just as organizations must consider their social impact and supplier diversity, each individual should evaluate their personal effect on the problems we are facing. In our social media feeds, neighborhoods, churches, hobbies, and professional networks, it’s all too easy to surround ourselves with people who think and look like us. How can you work against the flow to pursue diversity in who you work with, who you hire, and who you impact?
The answer is to intentionally seek multicultural perspectives and suppliers. Expand your network in meaningful ways to create your own lived experience of working alongside people who aren’t like you. Think of these people as your personal suppliers, and build a multicultural team. Consider your dentist, doctor, lawyer, and coach. What about your mechanic, hair stylist, realtor or gardener?
Inclusivity at this personal level generates tangible economic opportunities for underrepresented, underserved, and disadvantaged communities. It works to combat systemic inequality and create positive social change. It’s a way of taking personal responsibility for your actions and your impact.
This week has been a call to action for business leaders as representatives of their brands and as individuals. I am inspired by the corporate response from Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Blue Cross Blue Shield and many others who are taking action against this tide, and I would encourage their leaders to personalize change on a granular level as well. These are the moments when we show what we’re made of and how we intend to change the world.
About the Author
Donald Thompson is co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-enabled diversity and inclusion firm focused on business outcomes. He is also CEO of Walk West, an award winning digital marketing agency. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a mentor, teacher, public speaker, author, podcaster, angel investor, and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Reach out to him on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com
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